Melora Griffis: Authentic Expression in Many Forms

". . . a full-on inheritance of the creative gene,”
Melora Griffis has a studio on her parents’ secluded property on Shelter Island. Ms. Griffis built up the surface of “conch 3,” below, with glitter and oil. Mark Segal Photos

With parents who are actors and an uncle who established a sculpture park and an arts center, “I got a full-on inheritance of the creative gene,” said Melora Griffis. “I have known since before I can remember that I wanted to be an artist, and I was tormented at an early age that I would have to choose between painting, acting, and dance.” 

She needn’t have worried. For more than 30 years she has inhabited all three worlds successfully and at times simultaneously. Her résumé includes painting exhibitions, performance art, films (“Blessing”), television (“Law and Order”), and theater (“Las Meninas” by Lynn Nottage), to name just a few examples.

She earned a B.F.A. in 1986 as a painting major at the Rhode Island School of Design while at the same time taking courses in film, sculpture, and performance at Brown University. Two years later she graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan, and over the years she has studied with various dance theater artists.

“I draw on many ideas at the same time and then have different mediums and forms to express them. That is what I would like to continue to do. Whatever is going on in my life finds its way into the work in some way.”

After appearing in several theatrical productions in New York City in the early 1990s, she was cast as Randi, one of the leads in “Blessing,” a gritty drama about a dysfunctional farming family shot in Wisconsin. “I saw the call in Backstage and thought this was perfect for my father and me.” 

Her father, Guy Griffis, played Randi’s father, “and he was a mean character. But the fact that he was my father only affected things insofar as we didn’t have to get to know each other. We’re both professionals, and we both trained in the Method.”

Ms. Griffis went to Sundance with “Blessing,” about which the New York Times film critic Stephen Holden said, “The director and his fine cast have pulled off the difficult task of portraying a family whose deep strains don’t obscure their equally deep and helpless love.”

“It was a very exciting time, and everybody said I had to move to Los Angeles. Once there, a lot of managers wanted to work with me, but I didn’t know what I was doing.” Then she met Laddie John Dill, a prominent Los Angeles artist, who told her about the Santa Monica College of Art and Design, where she set up a studio in 1997.

“I always thought I would be an actress and paint but get discovered as an actress, but it has sort of been the other way around. If you can make art, it’s a more long-lasting thing. And it comes from me, only me, whereas the acting is very collaborative.”

“It was as if I had been holding my painting at bay for eight years while I had been acting. Once I got the studio space, all this stuff came out.” While she was living in Santa Monica, her parents moved from Montclair, N.J., to Shelter Island. 

“I was kind of missing New York and came back to visit and I thought it was great out here.” She had never been to the East End before, but it didn’t take her long to resume both painting and acting.

In 2001, while appearing in a Chekhov play in New York, she painted full-length portraits of her fellow cast members. Of that series, which was shown at Alex Echo’s AE Gallery in East Hampton, The Star’s art critic at the time, Robert Long, wrote, “Expressionist in spirit, they manage to capture the personalities of both the sitter and the painter in a way realistic painting can’t.”

Within a year she exhibited at Lizan Tops in East Hampton, Sara Nightingale Gallery in Water Mill, and Whitney Art Works in Greenport. When Pamela Williams left Lizan Tops to open her eponymous gallery in Amagansett, Ms. Griffis had solo shows there annually until it closed in 2012. She has also exhibited at Ille Arts in Amagansett and the former Silas Marder Gallery in Bridgehampton.

Most of her paintings combine figurative elements with gestural expressiveness and, in some cases, elements of abstraction. They include portraits of children and adults, flowers, boats, landscapes, conch shells, and range from simple, direct compositions to complex, sometimes dark, tableaux.

Regardless of subject, wrote Mr. Long in another review in The Star, “Ms. Griffis is at least as interested in the physical texture of paint as she is in her subjects . . . she reminds us of painters like Auerbach, Freud, and Bacon, who are as rooted in tradition as painters can be, yet place emphasis on paint as paint.” 

Her work of the last several years, some of which is now on view at 571 Projects in Stowe, Vt., has expanded her range of materials and the complexity of her surfaces. In “grief cave,” for example, acrylic, glitter, fabric, and various colored threads are pieced together on muslin with deliberately uneven hand stitching.

“La mer prière” is a mostly abstract collage on muslin of glitter, feathers, hair, sand, leather, latex, and digital prints. A beachscape, titled “her rock,” is built up with acrylic, sand, mixed fabric, and thread on muslin. “Having the surface be more aggressive is in a way more male, that is, doing something that’s coming out at you and not just flat and passive. But it’s also like addressing the theater, almost like creating costumes, a set.”

She admits the sewing is laborious and wonders how long she will continue with it. “I do miss the courage of making a painting without anything other than paint.” Which explains why some of the new work is just that. “Her seat” is a thickly impastoed rendering of a simple chair painted on a metal tray. 

Also typical of her work is the shifting between and mingling of abstraction and figuration, sometimes in mysterious images, such as “her camera,” in which a woman in white lies supine, arms spread, face barely recognizable — is she dead, asleep? — or “room six,” in which a man in a white shirt appears poised over another faceless figure in what could be an act of aggression. 

In a statement accompanying the Stowe exhibition, she wrote, “I establish a canvas by tilling the ground, so to speak, with a needle and thread on muslin. Once a topographical collaged mixed-media surface is conceived I move into the refinement with wet mediums bringing the painting to life. Figurative elements are combined with the allegorical. . . . ”

She still acts, most recently with her father in “Good Bones,” Tim Bohn’s 2017 independent film about the East End real estate business. Her theater work has evolved from one-woman shows to more avant-garde performance work that reflects the influence of such artists as Pina Bausch and Yoshiko Chuma.

Of painting, she has said, “It’s something that I own.” She has a studio in West Chelsea and another in her parents’ guest house, but she has also painted in the basement of a restaurant in SoHo where she waitressed, and in John Chamberlain’s tiny boat house on Shelter Island. 

Whatever the medium or studio location, she said, “Authentic expression is the consistent through line. . . . A multimedia approach allows for a thorough interrogation and an open-ended, all-inclusive, perspective on a subject.”

Other compositions, such as “room six,” are more complex and suggest acts of aggression or violence.
The painting “grief cave 1 (his)” suggests the interior psychological dimension of Melora Griffis’s work.