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Richard Maloy’s Fat Test by Natasha Conland

The following text was first published to accompany the exhibition Yellow Grotto Raw Material 22 July - 16 August 2008, at the Sue Crockford Gallery Auckland.


There’s much to say about Richard Maloy’s butter paintings, sculpture mounds and masks which links them in a highly visceral way to the history of the creative act.… The scraped, fingered and prodded soft matter brings to mind the most popular psycho-speak of an artist’s pre-cognitive play, the raw substance of Joseph Beuys' seminal fat sculptures, and the sculpting of organic matter into bodily forms in Louise Bourgeois. But it’s the absent stains I want to refer to.


In Yellow Grotto we witness the corporeal interaction between the artist and his material. In fact you could say that the visual experience of this handling is highly indulged by these works. Through two video works of more than 40 minutes we watch the artist sculpting butter equal to his body weight, in still images we see close-up manipulation of butter surfaces each plied to a gallery wall, and in a series of self-portraits, thick viscous butter is stacked over the artist’s head and face. 


Despite this directness, the viewer’s touch-understanding of this familiar material is held at bay by the vernacular of gallery production. While the artist works directly with his material, our primary engagement is a visual one. 


It’s hard to imagine a substance which has stronger sensorial associations than butter (other than bodily effluence itself). The images cue our physical memory of its touch, taste, decay, substance when handling. Consequently, the absence of touch capability in these works has a striking affect. This absence evokes a powerful empathy between the artist and ourselves, as we are left to imagine the manipulation of this known form. The mind lingers over it’s properties, forming questions from the senses: where is the stain and it’s now rancid odour, the fatty residue seep into the acrylic paint, its insoluble cell-structure coat our hands? With the primary experience of this matter removed, the butter paintings, documents and mouldings are made clean, beauty without the whiff of handling.


There is a ridiculously simple high-school science experiment which asked students of chemistry to swipe butter (or any other substance) on paper and observe it’s clear fatty residue: the fat test. It’s this residual fat that is missing from Yellow Grotto. Without it’s stain, the butter becomes colour, medium, culture. And, like other occasions of intellectual over sensorial enquiry, 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. At some very primal level, if only the artist is in possession of this stain, and we as audience know the cause and affect, we are guilty of passivity and he of provocation into sense.


Natasha Conland is a curator, arts writer and currently the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Auckland Art Gallery.

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