Melon Head

If people said they liked her artwork, Alix Lambert would, when she was a kid, immediately destroy the thing they had admired. Now that she is 38, destructive impulse in check, the first book documenting her artistic career comes out. Mastering the Melon documents Lambert’s wide range of “projects” over the years: The time she commissioned an artist to paint miniature portraits of her onto various tiny, tiny things — a grain of rice, the head of a pin — when the art world was all about gigantic-scale works. The time she and some girlfriends formed a fake band (with fake songs, a fake album, a fake music video, fake club fliers, fake music reviews and a fake documentary) when grunge bands and riot-grrrl groups dominated the music scene. The time she spotted a wedding chapel next door to a divorce office, and wondered how many times a person could get hitched and unhitched in a single day. Legally, only one, it turns out. No matter. Over the next year, Lambert married and divorced three men and one woman.

“If you ever get married, you should know that it’s much better to have a wife,” she says to me now. “My wife took such good care of me.” Alix Lambert in person: gangly slim as a teenager, light-caramel-brown hair, curled up like a spider on the edge of her sofa. Her apartment is “aggressively minimal,” with nothing but a smooshy velvet couch, a rug, and a lamp shaped like a medieval knight.

It seems odd yet strangely sweet that she is kind of shy, this person for whom wild spurts of the imagination tend to blossom out into full-fledged realities. She’s definitely not the sort of girl you’d picture schlepping all the way to Moscow to hang out in prisons, poking around at convicts’ tattoos, which she did in the project she’s most famous for: The Mark of Cain. Mastering the Melon, a scrapbook of sorts, contains up-close, almost clinical tattoo photos from her journey into the world of Russian jailhouses.

We page through the book, examining other bits of evidence. Photos from the time Lambert shaved her head and pretended to be a basketball coach, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, looking sexily mannish. Excerpts from her logbook, from when she took lessons on how to pilot a Cessna. She was into flying then, and was learning everything she could about airplanes. She even landed NASA’s space-shuttle flight simulator and “killed everybody” on the first try. Her most recent project appears in the last few pages. Lambert photographed an undercover cop and his family at their home in a suburb somewhere in Los Angeles. All of them — mother, father, kids — are hidden behind ski masks.

In the apartment upstairs, Lambert’s neighbors’ kids run endless, noisy circles, disturbing the quiet. She sighs. The upside of doing collaborative artwork, she says, is that it’s a way of having a built-in social life. The down (and dark) side of that — for some time after the prison tattoo project, at least — is that you get phone calls in the middle of the night from murderers and rapists.

You live and learn. Literally. As for the book’s enigmatic, deeply personal title, that comes from Lambert’s longtime friend and sometime babysitter. For practice, Lambert was inking tattoos on the skin of fruit. “Tell you what,” said her ex-babysitter when Lambert asked if she could give her a tattoo, to mark her, as it were, perhaps to claim her as her own. “You can give me one when you’ve finally mastered the melon.”

MASTERING THE MELON | By ALIX LAMBERT | Galeria Javier Lopez | 122 pages | $30 hardcover

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