Enjoy our interview with issue #37 artist Frances Melhop, who works in tactile mediums, exploring the tensions between the virtual and physical ways we experience the world. Her current focus is impermanence, memory, imperfection, and human presence and absence in our screen and material lives.

Frances Melhop, born in Christchurch, New Zealand, currently lives and works in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She holds an MFA and BFA from the University of Reno (Nevada). Melhop's work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions worldwide at notable institutions such as Autry Museum (Los Angeles, CA), Brownsville Museum (Brownsville, TX), Cincinnati Art Museum (Cincinnati, OH), Murray State University (Murray, KY), Gertrude Herbert Institute (Augusta, GA), and Arizona State University (Phoenix, AZ). She has exhibited collaborative works with Susan Norrie at Nancy Hoffman Gallery (New York, NY) and the NSW Museum of Art (Sydney, Australia). Melhop was awarded the Outstanding Artist Award in 2019 from the University of Reno, NNDA Innovator of the Year in 2014, and Luerzer's Archive World's Best Photographers in 2009/2010.

In 2020, she opened Melhop Gallery °7077 at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, representing 12 national and international artists. She also curates themed group shows with invited exceptional artists. For the last 5 years, she taught in the art departments of the University of Nevada, Reno, Western Nevada College, and Truckee Meadows Community College.

Melhop's early career was spent as an acclaimed editorial fashion photographer based out of Sydney, Australia, London, UK, and Milan, Italy. She made narrative fairytale photographic stories of women for women. Her work appeared in Vogue Australia, Vogue Italia editions, Pelle and Gioielli, Elle Portugal, Gioia Italy, and Marie Claire Italy.

How do virtual and physical worlds intersect in your artwork, especially regarding impermanence and memory?

I think a lot about the voluntary and involuntary trails we leave behind, from fingerprints on screens to profiles on social media as we construct our own histories.

Over the last 10 years, I've been exploring the tensions between our imperfect physical selves and our perfect-able virtual digital personas. I noted also the tremendous backlash young girls faced when they posted photographs online of their bad skin days or the process through teenage pimples and puberty. Disgust and outrage rained down on them. With 3 young daughters living at home at the time, this really bothered me. This kind of negative reaction reinforces the necessity for women especially, to present as unrealistically perfect and at times barely human.

Today living and working through screens, navigating a barrage of visual and aural data without much other sensory information has become the norm - textureless screens inform us, entertain us, track us, prompt us, classify us, map our lives, and broadcast us.

While our physical body is impermanent our digital designed self might very well go on forever. As opposed to traditional historic records, we now write our own histories. Apparently, we have control over what we want immortalized and memorialized or hidden and obscured. Memory and our bodies are so fallible. Coming from a photography background I also begin to wonder if digital images are replacing our memories. Layers and layers of photos piling up on us every day of perfect faces, retouched portraits, staged moments, blurring our real memories and creating false expectations and psychological stresses about how we appear virtually with the physical body unable to keep up with the improvements.

My recent exhibition, In the Middle of This Nowhere, examines whether we are losing the ability to distinguish our real selves from our virtual constructed identities. Does it matter? I wonder how important it is to discern the difference between physical experience and spectacles mediated by screens.

In my current work Common Threads, I am compelled to work in slow tactile physical mediums reversing out of digital worlds. The series is concerned with figuration, juxtaposing representational and abstracted forms and ideas.

These days each project that I undertake explores varying ways of being human and my own sense of self in the world, embracing imperfection and surprise. For me, it is extremely important to retain evidence of the hand in artwork.

What elements from your fashion photography background are most evident in your current art?

On a basic level, I am obviously still thinking about clothes, the importance of what we wear. Clothes as armor, as protection, as ritual, marking events in our lives, and the style of clothing that voices personality. In my photography, I was storytelling for women, working with teams of women, creating wonderful female protagonists for each tale we told.

The latest work titled Common Threads is again working with dresses. They are borrowed from friends and are steeped in stories and memories. Each dress is pressure printed and then overlaid with a stitched contour drawing of one of the 60s or 70s feminist icons who used their body as material for their artwork.

I am intrigued by the X-ray quality of the dress imprints, and in the play between perspectives and surfaces. The 3-dimensional thread stitches give a strange wriggly animated quality to the bodies.

From the start I never thought of fashion as commodity-based, more character-based, an alternative vision to a lot of the thoughtless exploitative images of women that were coming out. I always liked the Punk rock DIY aesthetic of individuality - I was not interested in “Buy this garment because it is hot, even if it doesn’t suit you”. I was more interested in how clothing tells a story, augments an identity and a personal way of being.

How have the varied cultural contexts of places you've lived, from Christchurch to Milan, influenced your techniques or themes?

Growing up on a faraway pristine ecologically unique Pacific island cannot help but inform my work. I feel like it's represented in simplicity, in stories and concepts that unfold, and in my interest in the individual rather than the trend. Throw-away fashion never caught my attention, I was all about tailoring, long-term quality fabrics, DIY and building your own personal uniforms that suit your character. I like garments that make the wearer feel good and confident because it's an expression of their real self, and their real body.

What drives your choices when curating artists for Melhop Gallery °7077?

Primarily my feeling for the work and a deep belief in each artist’s practice. I have followed all of the artists that I represent for a very long time. They are all compelled to work endlessly, constantly developing and evolving with incredible work ethics.

I tend to focus on supporting under-represented female artists, and I believe that it's important that they have achieved their Master of Fine Arts. I also think it's very important that they're teaching, as I believe boots on the ground working with up-and-coming artists really does help inform your own practice. Teaching also provides a tiny stable base income and allows the artist to explore worlds and ideas that are not directly tied to income, commodity, or funding. There is also the practical revision side of teaching that brings you back to the fundamentals which may have been forgotten. For me teaching is a really interesting way of relearning, rethinking, challenging, and staying current and relatable.

How has your portrayal of women in your art evolved since your fairytale photography days?

That is a good question, I do ask myself that often. There were always parameters with every magazine depending on their target audience, now I can set my own boundaries. I worked in fashion in a very narrative manner, using storyboards that I had created, drawn out like comic strips. I generally worked like a film director, where everything is mapped out beforehand with trusted teams that collaboratively work together on producing the story.

I loved models who were imperfect, who had kooky teeth or were a bit asymmetrical. For example, in Paris, I worked with Lara Stone whose agent at the time was telling her to have her teeth “corrected” to get the gap in the front fixed. She was thinking of giving up modeling altogether and was very despondent. I told her that one of the reasons that I chose her was specifically for her “gappy” teeth and that they were an absolute advantage, an individual trait that was very lovely. Later we all saw her go on to become a wildly successful supermodel and the face of Louis Vuitton.

Now as I work on the Common Threads series, I am thinking about the advances for women made by the 60s and 70s feminist artists and how the overturn of Roe versus Wade case in 2022, suggests we might be moving backward, losing some of their hard-won victories. It is also quite endearing and lovely to be working with the photographs of these women's bodies who are imperfect, who haven't visually reconstructed themselves, who haven't retouched the photographs of their performances, and who were very brave and wonderfully human.