When Melvin Charney was a teenager, he borrowed a camera from his father—a trained artist who painted houses for a living—and took to the streets of Montreal’s Old Port to shoot grain elevators, the Lachine Canal and the mixed history reflected in building facades on St Lawrence Boulevard. Charney finds these photos amusing now: all the buildings and signage are clear, but the cars and people are completely out of focus. It was an indication of what would catch his interest as an artist—the public spaces we inhabit—over the next forty years.
Throughout his career, Charney has used architecture as a metaphor for human beings and their often contradictory aspirations. Such a vision has helped to mould Charney into a rare combination of philosophical artist and civic-minded citizen.
An apprentice plumber, Charney trained as an architect first at McGill University (1952-1958) and then Yale University (1959) before working in firms in Paris and New York. Throughout this time, Charney also sold travel photos to magazines. A native of Montreal, where the Charney name is well known and respected (wife Ann is a successful novelist in English and French, while Dov Charney started fashion line American Apparel), he returned to Montreal in 1964 to take a position teaching architecture at the Université de Montréal.
Charney see himself as “an artist who is preoccupied with a range of issues, many of which are related to architecture.”
Charney’s career took off in 1969 when he submitted a design of an airplane-based musem for the National Air Force Museum of Canada. He did not win the competition, but his idea received critical acclaim. This early recognition helped launch his series of photo-based paintings, Une Dictionnaire... (1970s—2001), Le Trésor de Trois-Rivières (a monumental 1975 show that toured Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa), Les maisons de la rue Sherbrooke (1976) and Room 202, a highly successful 1979 exhibit in New York that constructed a room within a room.
In 1986, Charney’s work appeared at the 42nd Venice Biennale, and the next year he began the two-year process of creating the sculpture garden at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Subsequent public works (including the prize-winngin entry for the Canadian Human Rights Monument in Ottawa) and numerous exhibits at Gallery Sable-Catelli inToronto and the Venice Biennale of Architecture have only further cemented his artistic reputation.
Charney is summed up best in paintings from Bodyworks..., his latest collection. Layer upon layer of paint, newsprint and photographs require viewers to patiently strip away the various surfaces until they reach the single, fundamental problems that the artist is addressing.
“In my work, I think through various ideas and I use that to lose myself, to paint, get the images out. It’s the ideas that count. Every image has an idea.” Examples of the resulting work—a Trois-Rivières shack modeled after a sphinx, motels and bungalows crucified on the Plains of Abraham, body wrappings splayed across urban landscapes—suggest how Charney mixes our most intense personal experiences into questions about whether our living spaces serve us—or whether we serve them.
This uncertainty is most evident in his Bodyworks... exhibition (2005-2006) at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto. The idea, as Charney explains it, is that by the end of the 20th century, all space is standardized so it will no longer be one size fits all, but “one fit sizes all.”
“I have a friend who lives up in Harlem in social housing, and another who lives next to Carnegie Hall. [The second apartment] looks great but it’s the exact same layout as the social housing. Space is all standard because of layouts. You have to move a certain way because it’s inexpensive to build that way, and that’s mostly dictated by circumstances of mass population. And this has nothing to do with architecture.”
However, thinking about architecture is just the beginning for Charney. “I started looking in the backs of newspapers and found a lot of “bodyworks”— classifieds for “shemales” or “chicks with dicks,” as they’re commonly known. These people are perfect modifications. [They’re] made for our times. These people can screw anyone and satisfy anybody. As long as they don’t get AIDS.” The resulting paintings in Bodyworks investigate simultaneously the privacy of people’s homes and their sexual lives.
“Our lives in buildings are very precarious” says Charney. “Our logic slips up on buildings. Buildings slip out from under us; burn out from under us. Millions of people see them, yet don’t see them.”
Luckily for us, Charney is one who can.