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Financial Times

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Financial Times ~ Life & Arts ~ 23rd - 24th October 2010.

(Click here for the original article.)

'The old-fashioned, indeed romantic, view of the relationship between an artist and his or her client is that it should be fractious. The coming together of Art and Mammon should always strike sparks. Although one is dependent on the other, there must be some element of misunderstanding between the two. There is, after all, a jarring difference in sensibility between the money-maker and the art-creator. It would surely be heretical to suggest that they are essentially interested in the same thing.

Think of the scene from Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters in which the tortured artist Frederick (the masterly Max von Sydow) entertains a rock star client, Dusty, who is interested in buying some of his work. Frederick asks him, not without disdain, what kind of art interests him. Dusty replies that he is looking for something, well, big. Too banal for Frederick, who chases him out of the house. He may be poorer for not having made the sale, but his integrity is intact.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Earlier this week I met Paul Mellia, a London artist who enjoys almost more private commissions than he knows what to do with, for a coffee in Putney, not far from his studio. He was putting the final touches to an exhibition of his work in Birmingham’s St Pauls Gallery which opens this weekend. The show was going to last for one week, but has just been extended to December to cope with demand.

Mellia is, in certain circles, a hot artist right now. His scrupulous and detailed illustrations of themes from popular culture – film stars, sports cars, comic book super-heroes – have a wide and enthusiastic following. His list of past clients may have the look of a celebrity freak show – Nancy Reagan, Lisa Marie Presley, Mariah Carey – but he is proud of it, and of the draftsmanship that attracts people to his work.

He says he could draw objects in the correct proportions from the age of three, and had an innate understanding of perspective from an early age. Dyslexia (“they didn’t have a word for it then, I used to see words dancing on the page”) prevented him from following the plots of his beloved comics, and led him to pay more attention to the pictures. He went to art college in Southend, in Essex, perfected silk-screen printing (“I loved Warhol”) and refined the airbrush skills that would define his visual style.

At college he won a competition to decorate a backdrop in a Harvey Nichols window. A passing admirer wanted to buy it. That led to a private commission to decorate an apartment in Belgravia. “It was all in burgundy red, I remember. And the client wanted me to copy a Turner painting, but instead of the birds and the horse and cart, he wanted me to paint a Learjet and a Range Rover. It freaked me out a bit. I couldn’t do it.”

But that was a rare note of dissent. Here’s the thing: Mellia loves working with his clients. “I really value their input,” he tells me with improbable sincerity. “They are spending high-end money. So if they say they don’t want the background to look so yellow, that’s fine by me.”

He spent some years in Los Angeles doing private commissions in a garage in Hollywood Hills. About once a week, he says, a passing motorist would stop and offer him a fresh commission. One of them wanted him to paint a motorbike for a friend. “I told him, ‘I don’t do motorbikes’, but he offered to strip it down and bring me the parts. He was really persistent. In the end I did a figure of a gambler, a skull throwing a dice.” It went down a treat. The friend turned out to be Tommy Lee, the infamous rock musician whose penchant for macabre motorbikes is perhaps among his more wholesome characteristics.

The curious thing about Mellia is that what he does – invites commissions, gives clients what they want, makes things look realistic – is what for hundreds of years passed as the processes of great art. But today he is something of an anachronism. The art world can happily engage with the assorted weirdnesses of the contemporary scene without pause for breath, yet it would wonder of Mellia’s work: is it really art? Mellia himself couldn’t give a hoot. He says he went to Frieze once and thought it was full of people trying to con other people.

Mellia doesn’t have a dealer, but invites commissions from his website, which has been going for three years. The highest price he has charged so far is £75,000. He has recently gone into limited edition prints, but makes a point of customising each one at the end of the printing process, “so that everyone gets something unique”.

A few years ago, call it karma, he got the chance to draw all those super-heroes again, when he was approached by Marvel Comics to become the only artist licensed to reproduce the company’s characters. It was a lucrative relationship but he found it “too corporate”. Now he is concentrating on “darker, more personal” work. He showed me a couple of examples, respectively inspired by his adolescence and the suicide of a friend. They are, whisper it softly, more the stuff of “proper” art.

In the meantime, he continues to enjoy his status as a thriving and jobbing artist. A recent show in Hollywood sold out in two weeks. A version of the Birmingham exhibition is travelling to Berlin, St Petersburg and Monaco. He is popular among cultish urban artists such as Banksy and Blek the Rat who admire, as I did, Mellia’s lack of pretension, because the art world is way too full of it. Not all art has to change the way we look at the world. The conceits of the avant-garde appear ridiculous when they become the established way of doing things. Sometimes, only something really, really big will do.'

by Paul Aspden
Culture