Private Parts

Although psychologist Mel Roman took down his shingle more than 10 years ago to concentrate on his visual art career, he's still manipulating minds. Roman draws his viewers in with safe, recognizable images--television sets, Polaroid snapshots, photographs of movie stars--and, once we're there, engages us in a conversation about whatever happens to be on his mind these days, whether it's Samuel Beckett, dead film stars or himself.

Lately, Roman has been thinking a lot about privacy. His musings have resulted in "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a pointedly queer bunch of interactive images he hopes will stimulate discussion on the meaning of privacy and the ways in which people take it for granted.

With this show, Roman--whose mostly abstract work has attracted a national audience--has co-opted President Clinton's 1993 catch phrase regarding the questioning of gays in the military and superimposed it onto more than two dozen pieces, many of them movie stills and found-art photographs rescued from local thrift shops. He bends the "Don't ask, don't tell" construct to depict how the issue of sexuality, and whether to keep your trap shut about it, affects everyone.

"All of us have the right to choose privacy," he says. "I'm really less interested in addressing the gay issue than I am in reflecting how not talking about your sexuality--or any issue--is a universal concern of all human beings."

Pretty heady stuff. But Roman insists that his work is accessible, and that all can see themselves in most of his latest pieces--literally. A triptych of seven-foot-by-nine-foot mirrors, each displaying a simple message, greets visitors to the new show. On the first mirror, the phrase "Don't ask, don't tell" is stenciled; the word "faggot" appears on the second; on the third, the word "dyke."

The confrontational nature of the language is intentional, Roman says. "I want to confront the viewer with his relationship with those words, first thing. They're either words you personally relate to, or words that you hate."

Another large installation features a bank of eight television monitors, each tuned into a different network--CNN, CSPAN, an evangelical religious station. As with the other pieces, each TV screen is labeled with the words "Don't ask, don't tell," because Roman wants viewers to consider how little they know about the people they see every day. "Is the actor on the soap opera gay?" Roman asks. "The newscaster? Who knows? Who cares?"

Nearby, an enormous reproduction of a genetic map titled "Nature/Nurture" stands beside more items stamped "Don't ask, don't tell": a cheesy dime-store print of the Last Supper; a coffin draped with a United States flag; a series of found photographs of Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart and the graduating class of an unnamed 1940s police force.

Roman points out that the issue of privacy rights for gay men and lesbians is usually seen as sex-specific rather than political. "Straight people see it as something unrelated to their lives. I'm interested in reducing the distance between the subject and the object, which, in this case, is my audience. This show is not just about looking at a painting and saying, 'How interesting, how evocative,' but about trying to do something where the viewer is part of the job. With these pieces, it's impossible to see the work without seeing yourself as part of the equation."

--Robrt L. Pela

Mel Roman's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" continues through Wednesday, November 4, at Bentley Gallery, 4161 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 946-6060.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela