Recall Melrose Place and you may remember crazy Kimberly blowing L.A.’s most sex- and scandal-drenched apartment complex sky-high, or revealing that head scar in the bathroom mirror; the countless pool fights, slaps, the not-dead Richard’s hand shooting out of the ground…
At its best, Melrose Place was a weekly maelstrom of sex, skimpy clothing, gossip, bar fights, murder, and marriage proposals.
It was also, for two seasons at least, a subtly transgressive piece of conceptual artwork, one that was subliminally laced with winking references to American military power, racial privilege, the subjugation of women, and the global slave trade.
That’s because between 1995 and 1997, dozens of conceptual artists were given relatively free rein over show’s props, and so took off the set’s walls the anodyne art work that usually peppered the show, and instead laced the sound stage with work that would ordinarily never have made it past the censors at the Federal Communications Commission or network executives.
“We wanted to enter the world covertly, the way business does and the military does, but we weren’t there for power, we weren’t there for control like they were,” said Mel Chin, the artist who engineered the original idea back in the ’90s. “We were there to engage in ideas and progressive politics and examine how those ideas can be transmitted.”
Chin was standing in front of Red Bull Studios New York, an art gallery that has gathered all the art work from the intervention for a show set to open this week, Total Proof: The Gala Committee, 1995-1997.
As he spoke, a handful of assistants painstakingly recreated the entrance to the original Melrose Place building, complete with painstakingly hand-painted Spanish tiles.
Neighbors of the gallery space on 18th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, who were fans of the show, have been walking past both bemused and thrilled to see not just the recreation of the famous apartment complex entrance, but also the sign in the window signaling Shooters bar.
The idea for the original artistic intervention came to Chin when he was asked to contribute to a Los Angeles County Museum of Art show about L.A.
He was dividing his time between Los Angeles and Georgia, flying back and forth across the country, and somewhere over Kansas the idea hit him: “L.A is in the air,” he realized, meaning that Los Angeles existed as a fantasy projection beamed out across billions of television sets around the world. “It is in microwave transmissions traveling across America. That is the L.A. we need to be interested in.”
Once back in Georgia, he was flipping through channels on the television one night when the perfectly blonde, perfectly Californian image of Heather Locklear, the star of Melrose Place appeared on screen. Locklear’s character, Amanda, turned her head away, revealing a banal piece of art work hanging on the wall.
“And I thought what if that art work was replaced with a message of significance.”
Board members and higher-ups at the museum thought about using their connections to get in touch with Aaron Spelling, the famed producer who created the show and its counterpart, Beverly Hills 90210.
But Chin instead grabbed a couple of fanzines and found the name of the show’s set decorator, Deborah Siegel. He contacted her, and after she apologized for the dreck that was usually on the walls, agreed to his plan.
The idea, Chin said, was to use Melrose Place like a host, and he and his collaborators’ art work—which they donated for free—would be the virus, unwittingly infecting millions of viewers every week.
A bedspread was covered in condom shaped designs. A comforter mimicked the DNA of the RU-486 abortion pill, which was being hotly debated at the time. Chinese food containers were printed with the message “human rights” and “turmoil” written in Mandarin.
The presence of the art was supposed to work on viewers without them knowing what the art meant for the most part, to develop an appreciation of art without knowing they were seeing “art.”
Soon after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Chin’s co-op of artists—they called themselves “The GALA Committee,” since they were recruited largely from Georgia and Los Angeles”—created a piece of artwork that blared the words “Absolut Proof” in reference to the vodka brand ad campaign, and featured a photograph of the bombed-out Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to make a statement about the dangers of alcohol versus the far-more imagined dangers of terrorism.
That one tipped off the show’s producers, coming so soon after the bombing, and as the show writers were fiddling with the infamous episode in which Kimberley blew up the apartment complex.
Fortunately for Chin and his gang of collaborators, the show’s executive producer, Frank South, was a former performance artist in New York.
When Siegel came to his office to tell him what was going on, “I was just completely astonished,” South told The Daily Beast. “It was like someone was whispering to me, ‘Remember where you came from.’ And I just said, “Oh this is so great.’”
Eventually, the show’s producers and writers and the artists began to collaborate more openly, with the artists receiving scripts weeks in advance and South directing the camera crew to pick up on the artwork that could easily be overlooked.
At Shooters, the bar where the Melrose Place gang would go to knock back a few drinks and conspire in all sorts of overwrought shenanigans, the artists painted the labels of every bottle of alcohol, often with messages about the history of alcohol in America. (A bottle of Budweiser, for example, was renamed “Be-Wiser.”)
Melrose Place was not allowed to show two gay characters in a relationship kissing—there was one planned but it was edited out—but on one set was placed a yellow sign that “Brave New Family” and showed two men with a baby.
South even created an artist character on the show to better incorporate what GALA was doing. After a few episodes, Chin asked the show’s writers why the artist was painting in the style of David Hockney, which no young artist in L.A. would have been doing in the 1990s.
They said the camera picked up the color work, so the GALA crew made paintings in Hockney-esque colors but with serious themes, like a painting of the hotel where Robert Kennedy was shot.
“In Los Angeles, artists were pretty much divided into two camps,” said Constance Penley, a GALA Committee member. “Some thought, ‘Oh my god, you are working on a TV show?’ And the others thought, ‘Oh my god, you are doing this for free.’”
Although the job did have its perks, Penley said. “We were the only people in the country who knew what was going to happen with Kimberly’s brain tumor, or Allison’s pregnancy, or who was going to murder whom next week.”
The show’s actors were largely either uninterested, or oblivious, and the artists were told “to stay away from the talent,” Chin said, although he did recall Grant Show, who played Jake Hanson on the show, calling his cast members over to see what they had done with the labels at Shooters, and South recalled one actor—he couldn’t recall which one, wondering why the bowling bag he was carrying had a ball with a big fuse like a comic strip bomb in it.
Eventually, all of the artwork that the GALA members created ended up in a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., and in a layers-on-top-of-layers TV moment, two of the TV show’s characters went on a date to the art show.
The New Yorker wrote about the moment, which was when Aaron Spelling first heard about it.
He summoned South, who was certain he was in for a dressing down, to his office.
South recalled that Spelling said, “You have been doing this for two years and you never told me?”
South explained that he didn’t want to burden Spelling with it.
“How much is this costing us?” Spelling demanded.
Well, nothing, South replied, at which point Spelling gave it his blessing.
“Just don’t keep secrets from me, and don’t do anything to hurt my show,” he said. Which Chin said, they never would have done. Unlike others in the art world, there was no disdain from his crew toward trash TV.
“It is never about judging anything in culture as frivolous or campy. There is meaning out there to be had. And if we can make it more meaningful and compelling, then that is good job for artists to have.”
Once the famous MOCA date between Locklear and co-star Rob Estes’s characters happened, the secret was out. For the virus to be effective, it had to work secretly, and so it was time for the experiment to end.
Plus, Chin said, he and his collaborators were exhausted after having produced work week after week for free. The work was auctioned off and scattered to the winds, until Red Bull Studios gathered it back together for Total Proof: The Gala Committee 1995-1997.
Looking back on it, Penley said she was struck by how so much of what they dealt with back then remains the concerns of artists and television viewers today: “Sexuality, domestic terrorism, racial violence, global public health issues. I would have thought they would have resolved themselves by now.”
The artists say such an experiment wouldn’t be possible today. Social media would kill the stealth part of it, and television has become a high art form, with millions of armchair critics decoding each scene for clues.
But Chin made a career out of putting art in unexpected places, places that caught passers-by by surprise. “Art is not about manipulating things into being. It is about creating cataclysmic platforms that don’t exist into being,” he said standing by a remake of the Melrose Place pool in the Red Bull gallery. “The future can be like this. This was a deeply considered conceptual art work produced during prime time television. There is not just one thing to say about it.”
Total Proof: The GALA Committee 1995-1997 is at Red Bull Studios New York, 220 W. 18th Street, until Nov. 27, Wednesday to Sunday (12 p.m. - 7 p.m.).