2016-09-28 16:06:06
The Plot to Put Conceptual Art on ‘Melrose Place.’ Yes, Really.

Twenty years ago, the conceptual artist Mel Chin cold-called the offices of “Melrose Place,” Aaron Spelling’s wildly popular prime-time soap opera, with a proposition. What if a task force of artists supplied free artworks and props for the show’s apartment-complex set, with coded cultural messages on pressing topics like reproductive rights, American foreign policy, alcoholism and sexual politics?

Deborah Siegel, the show’s set decorator, listened to this absurd offer and had an instant reaction. “I thought it sounded really interesting,” she said in a recent interview. “So I met with him.”

This was the beginning of a conceptual artist’s dream, an ongoing intervention into the very heart of American mass culture. In 1996, Mr. Chin and a team of 100 mostly unknown artists, called the Gala Committee, began a two-year experiment, placing objects on the set of “Melrose Place.” They took their cues from scripts provided in advance and in some instances worked with the writers to modify plot lines and develop characters.

On Friday, at the Red Bull Studios New York in Chelsea, 100 objects from the committee’s work go on display in the exhibition “Total Proof: The Gala Committee 1995-1997.”

The exhibition, through Nov. 20, will be, appropriately enough, a rerun. Viewers of “Melrose Place” saw a version of it in April 1997, in a television episode featuring an actual exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, “Uncommon Sense,” which included many of the works produced for the set.

In it, Heather Locklear, as the hard-charging advertising executive Amanda Woodward, has just taken on the museum as a client and brings her love interest, Kyle McBride (Rob Estes), to the opening for a stimulating evening of art talk.

Much of it takes place in front of a Ross Bleckner-like painting that alludes to the American bombing of Baghdad. That work was ordered by Carol Mendelsohn, the show’s head writer. This fictional opening, filmed two weeks before the museum’s opening, was one of the great meta moments in television history.

Mr. Chin is by now a well-known figure, a skilled organizer of socially provocative works that can last for years. In a recent project typical of his approach, “The Tie That Binds,” he used native plants to create eight drought-resistant gardens along the Los Angeles River. Visitors were invited to take away a blueprint for one of the gardens and replicate it at home, furthering the cause of water conservation.

The “Melrose Place” idea began when Mr. Chin was shuttling back and forth between the University of Georgia, where he held a temporary professorship, and the California Institute of the Arts, where he was conducting a workshop. “We discussed pop culture and Hollywood,” said Valerie Tevere, one of his Cal Arts students and now an associate professor of art at the College of Staten Island. “How might artists work with TV. What sort of things could happen?”

Mr. Chin had never heard of “Melrose Place.” “I was not watching much television at the time,” he said in a recent interview at Red Bull Studios.

But if he was not watching, he was thinking, prompted by Julie Lazar, the director of experimental programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Tom Finkelpearl, a guest curator and now New York’s commissioner of cultural affairs, who approached him to take part in “Uncommon Sense.”

Mr. Chin recalled that while on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, he looked out the window and thought “Los Angeles is in the air.” The city existed in the trillions of electronic impulses its residents sent through the atmosphere and around the world, transmitting social content and cultural symbols. “Our world is transformed by covert information, political messages,” Mr. Chin said. “How would that work if it was art?”

Back home, Mr. Chin watched as his wife, Helen Nagge, flipped the remote and stopped on an arresting image. “I saw this large blond face filling the screen, with blue eyes,” he said. It was Ms. Locklear. “When she moved, there was a painting behind her, and I said, ‘That’s the gallery.’”

Mr. Chin began assembling his troops. The name GALA fused the abbreviations for Georgia and Los Angeles, but eventually the committee absorbed dozens of artists around the country.

The team included students; professional artists; a media scholar (Constance Penley of the University of California, Santa Barbara); and an actual fan of the show, Mark Flood, an old friend of Mr. Chin’s from his native Houston.

Mr. Flood wondered aloud whether the project amounted to a sellout. Mr. Chin told him, “We’re not selling anything, we’re getting in.”

Frank South, an executive producer for the show, and Ms. Mendelsohn decided not to mention the project to Mr. Spelling or the network brass. Eventually, word leaked out. In 1997, The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town article, “Agitprop,” timed to the opening of “Uncommon Sense.” Mr. South said, “I was busted.”

Mr. Spelling, tickled at the idea of seeing “Melrose Place” in the museum world, took the news well. “Just don’t do anything to hurt the show,” he told his charges.

In early 1996, with the series in its fourth season, the artwork began to arrive, first in a trickle, then in a flood. As a safe-sex message, committee members designed “Safety Sheets” for the manipulative, womanizing Dr. Peter Burns: bedsheets in an all-over pattern of cylindrical shapes that, on close inspection, turned out to be unrolled condoms.

When Alison Parker (Courtney Thorne-Smith) became pregnant, the GALA Committee made her a quilt appliquéd with the chemical symbol for the morning-after pill RU-486. “One of the things we wanted to do was to respond to the fact that in network TV, no matter how strong you are, you cannot have an abortion,” Ms. Penley said. “You either have the baby, or you fall down the stairs. We wanted to put reproductive choice back on network TV.”

One of the sneakier placements — the committee referred to them as “product insertion manifestations” — came from the Cal Arts workshop. When Michael Mancini, a character played by Thomas Calabro, visits a hot-sheet motel, he sees the clerk reading “Libidinal Economy,” a work by the French poststructuralist Jean-François Lyotard.

“Total Proof,” organized by Max Wolf with Candice Strongwater, takes its title from an altered photograph of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, with the damage reworked by the artists to mimic the shape of an Absolut vodka bottle. The work was initially deemed too disturbing to appear on the show, but somehow it ended up, in plain sight, on a wall at D&D Advertising, Amanda’s company.

As the television project gathered steam, the producers turned to the committee to help invent the character of Samantha Reilly, an artist who, after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, heads out to Los Angeles and moves into the Melrose Place complex. Ms. Mendelsohn was flown out to Kansas City to brainstorm with 10 women on the committee who became known as the Sisters of Sam.

“We thought, she could be a Cindy Sherman, or a Kiki Smith, or a Barbara Kruger,” said Ms. Penley, who envisioned a feminist conceptualist. But the producers demanded paintings in the David Hockney mode, with bright pastels.

“They said, “‘Because the camera loves those colors,’” Mr. Chin recalled.

Hijacking the concept, the Gala Committee turned out a series of cheery-toned paintings on the theme of violence and death in Los Angeles.

The Gala Committee called it a day after the museum episode, but the series continued until May 1999. In a half-serious statement for a sale of many of the artworks at Sotheby’s, Mr. Chin summed up the great intervention as the catalyst for “a profoundly radical transformation of worldwide art, entertainment, communication and government.”

The reality was somewhat less dramatic. “We were exhausted, basically,” Mr. Chin said. “It was very stressful, producing on deadline. The potentiality and the pictorial reality had been enlarged, so we decided to stop there. It was time to release it to the world. And think of the reruns.”