When photographer and New Zealand native Frances Melhop opened her gallery, °7077, in Zephyr Cove two years ago, it was with a desire to provide a much-needed commercial space for showcasing artists long term—an offering she felt was too scant in Northern Nevada. It wasn’t long before she understood why they were scarce.
“People are up in the mountains to do sport and hide out and just chill, and they don’t have that kind of gallery-visiting practice that you have in a major city,” she said. “I really enjoyed having a beautiful gallery space, but after about two years sitting in a white cube, I was thinking, ‘I can’t just keep hammering away at something that people aren’t responding to.’”
What people did respond to, she realized, were events. Visitors enjoyed art-focused events that involved experiences and enabled them to interact with people and art.
“I decided what would be a more interesting way of doing things would be to go kind of guerilla style and just pop up in really unusual places that are much more relevant to the actual artists’ work,” she explained.
So Melhop—who represents 12 local, national, and international artists under her business, Melhop Gallery—established Melhop Projects, a pop-up exhibition business in which she curates event-based exhibitions for her artists that enable visitors to experience art viscerally, through relevant settings, soundscapes, and more. Though pop-ups certainly incorporate some aspects of event planning, Melhop sees this as much more than simply booking an event and some vendors; she’s enabling deeper audience engagement with artists’ work.
“I think of contemporary art and artists as thermometers, sensitive beings that notice and initiate critical dialogue on cultural, environmental and social issues,” reads her mission statement. “These guerilla-style pop-up exhibitions and immersive events are designed as an alternative to the traditional approach to art and art galleries. I want to construct a platform and art experiences that support creative interaction, collaboration, and consciousness as well as showcasing artists and their work. It becomes an extension of my own art practice.”
Take, for example, Melhop’s most recent exhibition, Uncertain Certainty by Miya Hannan. The work is focused on the vanishing of Asian immigrants involved in railroad work and mining during the Comstock days. It’s work in which the medium is the message—with an easel positioned above her, Hannan draws her intricate work in a physically challenging way, using soot produced from a candle. “Her whole practice is about mortality and the transition between life and death,” Melhop explained. “Her vision is that we change form from solid to smoke, and I think that came about when she was with her parents cremating her granddad. She realized he was still there, but he had just changed form when she saw the smoke coming out of the crematorium. So that has really informed all of her practice.”
Melhop had for a while envisioned an opium den setting as one that would be especially provocative for an art show, but it wasn’t until she saw Hannan’s work that she immediately saw the two as a perfect marriage. The exhibit took place in November-December 2022 in the opium den of an old Chinese herb shop in Truckee—now the HSH Interiors studio—which survived a major fire that decimated the rest of Truckee’s Chinatown. In this context, Hannan’s soot paintings, skeletal-looking rocking chair sculpture, installations containing ash-filled glass jars and a kinetic sculpture comprised of a cabinet and an old opium bottle filled with soil and broken artifacts are infused with eerie echoes of the past, which are reinforced by a soundscape created by Reiko Yamada. The work isn’t simply seen; it’s felt, which aids its understanding and intensifies its impact.
Melhop says she’s currently in various planning stages for roughly 17 future shows, which will unfold over the next two years, but it’s a future that excites her.
“Since I’ve made this transition, everything’s become fun again,” she says. “It’s so much more challenging, and I really need that.”
In addition to creating exhibitions for the 12 artists she represents, she is developing some themed, curated group shows in which she invites other artists to participate along that theme.
Her next exhibition, which opens in March and runs through June, is Field Notes, a selection of work by Julia Schwadron Marianelli, Megan Berner, and Jean Brennan—three women artists who respond and relate to our unusual and extreme environment in Northern Nevada and Northern California, through various mediums. Though the details of the individual and collaborative work and the exhibition itself are still unfolding, the venue—Truckee-Donner Recreation Center—provides an ideal setting for works that respond to the environment, with its climbing walls, sunlit atrium featuring exposed wood beams and enormous windows, all to bring the outdoors in.
Artist Miya Hannan will appear in the Nevada Humanities talk “Memory and Resistance: Remembering Japanese American Incarceration” Feb. 16 from 6-8 pm at the Downtown Reno Library.
Photos courtesy of Frances Melhop.