There’s something deeply satisfying about watching an artist’s work develop over time. Take Frances Melhop. In the 90s and 2000s, the New Zealand native worked in Australia and Milan, shooting fashion photos for magazines like Marie Claire and Vogue. Back then, the strength of her imagery relied on subverting commercial narratives with stripes of fairytale and fantasy. In later years, with the photographs she’s made to show in galleries, she’s held up a mirror to portraiture—a form that we might think of as conveying “reality”—and examined the many ways we construct and present our identities.
Her images come in groups. Each group might include ghost-like figures in abandoned rooms, the people and architecture in and near Virginia City, or facial features borrowed from strangers’ Instagram selfies. For different groups, Frances uses different technologies—anything from post-Civil-War tintypes to video to cyanotypes on fabric. To watch her progression over the years is to watch her pull back the curtain on our very notions of selfhood, to hear her ask, over and over, what we’re trying to convey when we decide what we look like. (And, in some cases, whether we’re even the ones deciding.) To follow her career is to watch one observant artist take on the same set of questions, again and again, from every angle she can find.
To catch this entire progression, you would have had to keep an eye on the region’s non-profit and college gallery schedules, and maybe take a field trip to an artspace in Santa Monica, Cannes, or Tempe. With the exception of Stremmel Gallery, there hasn’t been a commercial artspace in Northern Nevada likely to show the work of a given artist over the long term.
In December, Frances changed that. She opened Melhop Gallery °7077 in Zephyr Cove. (The number is the elevation she measured at the crest of her favorite hike, Shakespeare Rock, on the east side of Lake Tahoe, where she now lives.)
The gallery is near the Safeway across Highway 50 from Lake Tahoe’s Nevada Beach, shaded by pine forest. Outside, it’s an upscale strip mall unit. Inside, it has the special-occasion formality of a very small museum. The ceilings are high, the walls are pristine, and the 800 square-foot space is divided into separate nooks and rooms, one warm with afternoon sunlight, another dark enough for video projections.
“I want to support local artists, but I feel like it’s really important also to bring completely different work in, and people who are in different places, different ways of thinking,” Frances said. The idea sprang from a period of isolation she experienced after moving to Reno in 2011. Previously, her immediate circle had consisted of artists from around the globe. Suddenly, she was outposted in a new place, interacting only with her immediate family. Over the next several years, she found ways to expand her circles, connecting with artists from near and far. She directed the galleries at St. Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City for a while and launched a residency program there for artists visiting from other states and countries. She earned an MFA at UNR, where she taught several classes, and she’s the author of Rogue Nevada, an elegant blog that profiles artists with Nevada connections.
Another big part of Frances’s motivation for opening Melhop Gallery is to show how artists develop over time. She met London artist Stewart Easton, for one, on MySpace, back when it was the prevailing social media platform. As a longtime fan of traditional tales like the ones the Brothers Grimm collected, Frances was taken with Easton’s use of storytelling. “Everything he did, he was either making up his own folkloric tales or working with tales from his native Coventry in Britain” she said. (The English city is known for being rich in legend.) “He always surprises me. He’s always ahead of the game. His work was always a bit off the wall, and it’s always deilberately challenging.” Years after connecting online, the two met in person in London. At some point, Stewart moved to Berlin, where he switched from representional work to abstraction. “I don’t know what caught his interest there,” she said. But she loved the new work, its tension and color, the way it pushed the definitions of what is art and what is craft.
Stewart, who’s back in London, is now among Melhop Gallery’s stable of nine artists. So is Frances. The number will likely increase to 12 or 13. A few are locals—Julia Schwadron Marianelli from South Lake Tahoe, Galen Brown from Carson City, and Megan Berner from Reno. Others live in places like Los Angeles, New York, or Moscow.
The current exhibition, Shelter, features all nine artists. Next, each artist will have a solo show every two years. The idea is to present to gallerygoers a long-term look at each one’s progress. By now, Frances has a serious head start on us—she’s been following them all for at least a decade.
Melhop Gallery is located at 210 Elks Point Rd., Zephyr Cove. Until the pandemic subsides, it’s open by appointment only. To make an appointment, contact Frances: firstname.lastname@example.org. She also welcomes requests for mini receptions/guided walk-throughs of up to seven people. To view the artists’ portfolios and for more information, visit the gallery’s website.