Attempts: Take 1 by Franklin Melendez
The following text was first published in 2010 to accompany the exhibition Attempts at the Sue Crockford Gallery Auckland.
At first glance, Richard Maloy's multiple Attempts can't help but evoke a host of art historical predecessors, from the gestural scrapings of Robert Rauschenberg to the pointed scribbles of Cy Twombly. With solemn deadpan, each of the twelve untitled panels presents a different optical field seemingly imprinted with the expressive traces of the artist. On cue, we could even offer a convincing-enough reading (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) rehashing some of the medium's familiar touchstones: the picture plane, its flatness and all that jazz.
Those familiar with the artist's practice will of course be suspicious of such facile narratives, for far from enforcing art historical teleologies, Maloy invariably works to unravel them. Indeed, if he invokes traces of these figures, he does so haphazardly, and not in their heroic incarnations as paragons of post-Greenbergian painting, but in a much more diminutive sense: during their Black Mountain College days, fumbling under the tutelage of Josef Albers to figure out what the hell to do with a blank square. For in fact, each of these artfully composed rectangles is a full-scale photograph of a student's worktable, twelve in total, amassed while Maloy was teaching at Elam School of Fine Arts at The University of Auckland. The added kicker is that these were sculpture students (so much for medium specificity) and the results are just the material remnants of so many failed experiments, shots in the dark and, perhaps even a few mini-triumphs, that a diligent instructor archived and re-oriented (from horizontal to vertical) to give them an unexpected afterlife in the gallery.
A brief digression before we proceed: in Other Criteria, 1972, art historian Leo Steinberg borrows a term from printing (the 'flatbed picture plane') to critique stuffy old Clement Greenberg's account of post-War painting. As he writes: 'The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as table tops, studio floors, charts and bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which information is received.' There's much to say about this, but we'll simply satisfy ourselves by noting that for painting this meant a shift from pure optics to process, and all the grounded (and grounding) messiness this implies. It might also be worth adding that the basis for this critique was the work of Rauschenberg, Twombly, and a few other intrepid art school grads.
It is tempting to read Maloy's gesture as an ingenious reversal of Steinberg's equation, impishly moving from horizontal back to vertical. And this would artfully capture the crux of his practice, which we might lump under the general rubric of 'institutional critique' as anachronistic as that might be and, truth be told, his reach extends far beyond the white cube. Perhaps more aptly, we may describe Maloy's practice as a continual working through, transforming the gallery – or any other room for that matter – into an unstable studio space that troubles boundaries with Duchampian glee. Previous attempts have tackled the implicit divisions of the gallery system (Tree Hut, 2004), the history of sculpture (28 compositions, 2003) and the limits of paintings (Yellow Grotto Raw Material, 2008), to name just a few.
In Attempts, Maloy gets back to basics, grappling with the literal foundations of the contemporary art world: the ubiquitous, but rarely addressed art school machine. Far from an abstract engagement, he presents a literal grappling with its base matter: the remnants of student work, which his re-orientation transforms into an unexpected social archeology. It is a simple gesture, but leaden one, in which "process" takes on an important meaning, bearing upon the now standard equation: art school + gallery + museum = artist. If not quite vanitas paintings for the MFA generation, these panels offer glimpses at 'works in progress' – with the intended pun of the literal work of becoming an 'artist' in an increasingly bureaucratized and globalized system. This speaks to the ideologies of the classroom, as well as an endless assortment of other accoutrements, including shippers, art handlers, dealers, galleries, museums, art fairs, websites, etc. Never one to be disingenuous, Maloy doesn't efface his own complicity in the system, but rather sets it forth as another point of contention, inviting a playful but insistent questioning that unfixes all given narratives – including this one.
Franklin Melendezis a writer and independent curator based in California, he received his Ph.D. from University of California Berkeley in 2009. He is a regular contributor to numerous print and online publications, including Tokion, Flaunt, artforum.com, and San Francisco Magazine.