Mel Odom’s Art of Decadent Dramatics

A new exhibition at David Lewis firmly establishes the New York portraitist’s place in the pantheon of those whose genius harnessed languages of visual persuasion yet swelled beyond the bounds of commercial prompts.

“Quasimi” (2019). Image courtesy of David Lewis

In the late ‘70s and on through the ‘80s, Mel Odom developed commercial illustration work that penetrated the fine art corpus. The alchemical precision of his technique, which involved developing some seven iterations of graphite and dyes within a single work, resulted in portraits of lovers and other creatures that stand as documents of disappeared communities while summoning queer worlds of imagination. 

Since moving to New York in the 1970s, Odom has lived a few lives. In 1995, he transformed the doll market into a site of postmodern experimentation with his blockbuster creation, Gene Marshall, but that’s a whole other story. This fall, “Blind Tongue,” a new exhibition at David Lewis, firmly establishes Odom’s place in the pantheon of those—Tom of Finland, James Bidgood, Kenneth Anger, Patrick Nagel, Cindy Sherman—whose genius harnessed languages of visual persuasion yet swelled beyond the bounds of commercial prompts. “His work hits on the high point of gay liberation and the magic of after hours, with touches of surrealism,” says curator Michael Bullock. “It’s important for him for his drawing to be able to do what can’t be done in reality. I look at his work and it opens the door to imagine a whole world.” 

Below, in a conversation edited for clarity, Odom talks about childhood drawings of nightclubs, the real faces of porn, and drawing to survive.

“Blind Tongue” (1996). Image courtesy of David Lewis

When did you begin drawing?

I lived in a town of 4,000 in North Carolina. My dad had a peanut and tobacco farm. I began drawing around age three. My mother saved them all—she was my first curator. I remember her going, “What is this drawing?” I said, “It’s a woman making her nightclub debut.” There was a long pause—how does my five-year-old know about nightclubs? I saw it in an old movie. I asked for drawing lessons, and my parents encouraged me once they knew this was the only way I’d be happy. 

When did you move to New York?

October 15, 1975. I came for the weekend to stay with friends. I looked up the agent of my college advisor and showed her my illustrations in the Village. Two weeks later, I got a call from her saying, “A new women’s magazine called Viva wants you to draw a sexual fantasy for them.” So I packed up and moved. I would draw on a board in my bed. Blue Boy saw my work in Viva. They were a gay magazine with a genius art director, Alex Sanchez, who’d let you do anything as long as it was beautiful. Then Playboy saw my work and hired me. Time saw my first Playboy drawing and hired me to do covers. 

For them, you made portraits of despicable characters like Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan. You were also making portraits of friends and lovers, some of which are in this show.

Hard Stuff (1985) is a portrait of a boyfriend of mine who became a heroin addict. It was very difficult and traumatic. I did the drawing after we broke up. He was attractive and charming and the other good things that get washed away with heroin. I worked on it for two months and then didn’t look at it for 20 years, then found it in a cabinet. I thought, “Oh, God. Okay. Thank you, Joe.” I put tattoos of roses on his body because tattoos require needles, and the roses were a beautiful way of expressing his not-beautiful addiction.

“Hard Stuff” (1985). Image courtesy of David Lewis

Do you generally use people you know in your work?

A lot of them are. I made up a lot of the people. I’d also buy porn because it has the best faces. I’ve drawn every boyfriend I’ve had since I lived in New York. Three in a row died of AIDS. Those drawings became documents. I thought I’d be dead soon, and I wanted something I’d be proud to leave behind. My work is tedious; I was drawing 12 hours a day. I had a sense of responsibility that I wanted it to be beautiful, and that required me to sit there and just do it. 

Your illustration work slowed as you focused on the Gene Marshall doll and oil painting. Things are picking up again—you have this show, and your work illustrates a book of poetry by Jorge Socarras, The Archeology of Eros. How did the book happen?

I met Jorge the same time I met Joe. He was the sanest of Joe’s friends. He asked if he ever did a book of poetry, would I do drawings for it? We forgot about it, but Jorge lived in New York for a while and we’d bump into each other. We were glad to see each other still well and breathing. I have a unique bond with him because out of our friends back then, we’re two of the survivors. 

He got in touch about this book. He’d mention things in the poems and I’d think of my drawings. I uncovered envelopes of preliminary sketches for various assignments, or I’d intended them to be sketches but I’d make them much more elaborate. They were beautiful in ways I hadn’t been able to recognize. I’m glad I was able to see through something I offered to do back in the ‘80s. 

“Heart Attack” (1986). Image courtesy of David Lewis

Mel Odom: Blind Tongue” is on view at David Lewis (111 Reade Street, New York) until Oct. 28.

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