Try and Try Again

Martin Patrick

The following is an extract from Broadsheet an Australian art journal first published 2010.

Making progress. Spending our time. Trying to get it right. Playing around. What’s the difference between these phrases, and how can we determine any functional and justifiable criteria for doing so? In the works of New Zealand artist Richard Maloy the considerable distance between a wide variety of categorizations is always strategically in play, off balance, and very nearly slipping away from us as we attempt to come to terms with what we are actually seeing.

In the current era, one might detect (just as with painting) the vestigial suspicion of a kind of formal and ideological closure within many sculptural artworks, rather than maintaining a particularly exciting or generative status. Given that, Maloy proceeds in other directions. He shifts his divided attentions toward duration, time, context, just as his concerted manipulations and stagings make cogent and legible work from literal scraps: corrugated cardboard, predominantly.

By using materials so often read as merely functional and devoid of excessively positive aesthetic associations, Maloy chooses to reroute the paths of signification and the notional emphases of his action/sculptures. The action displaces the result, or let’s say becomes increasingly central to the result, as choices the artist makes to fill (and unfill) a space with cardboard also leaves the analysis of the materials comparatively unproductive. By using the adamantly prosaic cardboard, the viewer is potentially led more quickly to ponder other matters addressed within Maloy’s provocative installations, videos, and sculptures.

Nonetheless, the use of cardboard in many of Maloy’s works conjures significant referents: the maquette, the parcel, the container, and furthermore the propped up amateur stageset or flimsy children’s costume. This starts an engaging spiral of references going, such that as viewers we might “fill” up the seemingly empty spaces created by the artist with our own mental images. What happens when we scrutinize the giant cardboard room with its interior painted white (and set within the room of a gallery)? A perceptual game ensues, as the viewer is asked to walk around the perimeter of the huge bowl-like shape, peer into a window-like gap cut into its surface but be consistently relegated to the perimeter, separated from the interior constructed by the artist.

Maloy has created numerous projects involving the act of residing within an exhibition space to create specific works, but often the artist himself is not on display, so to speak, but works under the cover of the evening’s “down time.” By the time the visitors are attending the exhibition each day, it might have morphed once again into another state of its aesthetic transformation. This is markedly different from the ways by which Maloy’s actions and physical presence is incorporated within the context of his video works.

If an artist contends sportingly with his own weight in butter (as depicted in Maloy’s video Yellow Grotto) is he likely to know any more about sculpture than when he began? Perhaps, or at least, there is a troubling, surreal sense that some bizarre alchemical transformation might be getting underway if the artist just pushes, pulls, and slathers this enormous blob of grease just a little bit more. As it is, the artist wrestles his amorphous self-portrait, initially bringing to mind both the unbearable sculptures of De Kooning and the mounds of rather undifferentiated matter so common to post-Modern installation art (or the compost pile).

But beyond this, what’s most apparent here is the fact that the shape does not congeal into a finished representation. The flux’s the thing. These slabs of yellowish matter are losing their identification with everyday butterness in favor of some war with their new artness, or should I say some artful transfiguration of artlessness. Maybe I won’t. Scratch that. Try again. Or recall curator Natasha Conland’s pointed remarks concerning Yellow Grotto:

We might linger on the dominance of this commodity in our culture, the culture of dairy fat. But this isn’t where the work finally resides. Rather, the extenuated experiment with handling a material we know intimately, spectacularly in his overwhelming 40 minute manipulation of this form until it softens beyond mass, is a stimulus for our senses, causing a transference between artist and audience which is somewhere between desire and revulsion.

If Maloy indulges to a certain extent the procedural effects of early 1970s performance and actions or even Beuysian social sculpture he pointedly shuns the social visions and utopian notions that such grand gestures once were identified with. His approach becomes more akin to the playfulness and ridicule characteristic of the early happenings and events of Allan Kaprow or Ben Vautier, or the contemporary revising of such historical touchstones of creative flexibility and lightspiritedness by Erwin Wurm and others. Here I am. Look at me. I am art.

Art historian Caroline Jones writes in her book on the transformation of the studio in 1960s American art that: “The romance of the studio had been predicated on the exclusion of others, and by extension, the critique of that romance might suggest the potential for their inclusion and the possible origin of a practical political result.’  It seems to me that a major noteworthy factor in Maloy’s work is its critique of the studio environment. In his practice, the garden or the living room displaces the traditional studio environment, as does the gallery and museum, or the city’s streets.

Maloy doesn’t seek transcendence but revels in the disconnection between mundane materials and situations, and the traditional artist’s belief in something perhaps more, greater, beyond. If we can’t make things anew anymore, Maloy seems to say at least make them odd, estranged, but from materials that are close to hand: DIY mainstays, anachronistic art supplies, clunky and paltry bits and pieces. Many of Maloy’s actions equally evoke the gestures of the playground, whether construction or climbing. To accompany a 2005 exhibition of his photographs, Maloy recounted the following story:

When I was 11 years old and my brother was 3, I took it upon myself to stalk my brother with paparazzi stealth and take a series of unannounced photographs of him sitting on the toilet. Like a true professional, and even after the tears from his little face started flowing I continued to shoot until the entire roll of film was finished.

Thus the artist appends a lively anecdote onto works that continue to extrapolate upon parallel trajectories of cruelty and creativity.

In 2004, the artist (dis-)placed a handmade wooden Tree Hut into the unlikely setting of his Auckland gallery. Viewers were then offered a chance to pay to spend the night in the structure. Artist Sriwhana Spong indicated the complex tangle of intersecting connotations brought forth by Maloy’s project:

In Tree Hut, Maloy goes some way to closing the distance between the artist and art buyer. This relationship is an important one, each needing the other to varying degrees. A fee of $150 charged by the gallery, lodges the tree hut soundly within the branches of a dealer gallery. This transaction also excludes the casual viewer, who is alienated from the intimacy created between buyer and seller. Maloy’s fee is a hybrid formed from three different areas of transaction. It is the average price of hotel accommodation with similar views in the area, in relation to size per square foot. $150 divides into an hourly wage of $10 for the artists nine hours of sleep a night, once the gallery cut is removed. It is also in keeping with the fee paid for a male prostitute in downtown Auckland. All three speak of some form of ownership for a set amount of time, through monetary transaction.

Maloy’s performatively configured prostheses are frequently both macabre and funny. A party for one, aestheticized yet off-kilter and seemingly always in the process of transforming into something else. In Clay Nose (1998), the artist alternately smears and sculpts a false, elephantine proboscis. The process highlighted here is messy, contingent and utterly ridiculous: that is to say, a most interesting thing to do. In Body Arm, the artist applies wet clay to his torso, linking it to his right arm, as his left arm carries out all the sculptural work of shaping, molding, and ultimately concealing. This video also brings to mind the seminal early works of the artist Bruce Nauman, such as Feet of Clay, From Hand to Mouth, and Art Make Up.

In related video works, a sticky awkward plasticized wood veneer is wrapped around the artist’s leg. Then the artist fabricates a cardboard covering for another man’s leg. There is a distinctly eroticized quality to Maloy’s practice, in both the actual use of materials and their related associations: bondage, obstacles, entrapment, hiding. Moreover, in the preponderant use of actions involving overt physicality: touching and tinkering, repeatedly playing.

Maloy enacts such performative antics with relative zeal—and to the end of creating deliberately framed, elegantly lit set up photographs—although methodically and quietly. The sound of his videos amounts to unrolled tape, the slap of clay, the wispy shudder of cardboard against denim. Maloy consistently “unfixes” portions of the work as soon as it stabilizes, congeals. A manifest contradiction in his work is this ongoing uneasiness with finish coupled with an absolute focus on detail, clarity, and realizing his chosen actions with subdued exactitude.

To my mind the most manifestly intriguing of Maloy’s videos is 28 Compositions in which a boy wears a cardboard shell-like costume, a frontal prop, bare arms and legs protruding from the rough edges from this dark, basic shape, which resembles nothing so much as a caricatured exclamation point. The costumed figure then acts out a number of set pieces, poses, as a type of sculptural stutter, flickering from time to time into something recognizably iconic: the reclining, kneeling, or standing figure for the most part. It almost appears as if an introduction to sculpture had been stripped down into a pantomimed series of rituals. Ways to describe sculpture to aliens, maybe? The history of sculpture transformed into a desperate burlesque. Meanwhile this is all taking place—as recorded on a rough, amateurish video—in a suburban garden, near a fence, beneath a tree.

Maloy’s works conjure aspects of the following: make-believe, dress up, role-playing. Maloy does often occupy a theatrical role, a paper bag prince appearing to construct things as he goes along, although this is not actually the case. “Bagism” was Yoko Ono’s artistic construct derived from a touchy-feely communitarian politicized notion: let’s get together in a bag, being friendly, being naked. Whereas with Maloy, a recent photographic edition features the clothed artist standing stiffly at attention, covered in a colorful plastic bag, eliciting not quite a statement of heroic intent, more a nonsensical conception that continuously crashes back to earth as we can readily identify his bags as everyday consumer bags: not really masks, signs, or armor, simply bags full stop.

Recently critic Lane Relyea noted incisively ways in which contemporary sculptural practice has responded to current cultural conditions, and those of the increasingly dispersed artworld more specifically:

Just as no TV show or pop song is as hot today as the TiVo boxes and iPods that manage their organization, so too with art it is the ease and agility of access and navigation through and across data fields, sites, and projects that takes precedence over any singular, lone objet. And the new sculpture …doesn’t contradict this. It doesn’t stand in defiance of network forces but rather proves their further extension by measuring how these forces have subsumed and changed the way we think about objects, have subsumed the very opposition between the single and the multiple, the enclosed and interpenetrated.

Richard Maloy’s self-imposed temporal and formal strictures serve to dynamically activate his sculptural projects. To a certain degree, one could say that the use of distinct boundaries helps to initiate a free space for the mind to inhabit. The marking off of hours, days, weeks and the use of rudimentary materials rather than limiting Maloy’s work, engenders a climate for new possibilities. In creating a fleeting but consequential series of event-driven projects, Maloy may be enamored with artifice and fakery, but the scope and intensity of his work belies a corresponding involvement with the particular circumstances of his actual gestures and the lived experience that cannot be readily severed from his engaging artistic practice.

Martin Patrick is an American art critic and historian and currently Senior Lecturer of Critical Studies at Massey University. His writings have appeared internationally in such publications as Afterimage, Art Journal, Art Monthly, and Third Text. Two of his essays were recently published in One Day Sculpture, D. Cross and C. Doherty, eds. (2009). He has presented his research widely, including conferences in Los Angeles, Bristol, and Zagreb. He has taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. He is working  on a book that examines artists who engage with the art/life divide.