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Never Not Working

Michael Ned Holte and Richard Maloy in Conversation*

Michael Ned Holte:  We met in August 2010, during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, which is situated in the Golden Gate National Park, just north of San Francisco. It was cold and foggy there, and I found the setting radically different than the abundantly sunny one I’ve grown accustomed to in Los Angeles. But, I clearly remember you mentioning that the environment wasn’t all that different from what you were used to in New Zealand. Still, I enjoyed thinking of you traveling half way around the world to be there!


I found the displacement to that more-or-less desolate location incredibly productive. You spent many of your days driving across the golden gate bridge and into the city to do your work. What exactly were you working on, and what did you find rewarding in that particular environment?

Richard Maloy: Can you believe it’s been a whole year since we met? The food on that residency was amazing; they should produce a cookbook. My studio in New Zealand is on the outskirts of Auckland, in a small rural community close to nature, with black sand beaches and rugged landscape, much like the environment we found ourselves in the Golden Gate National Park. Unlike the other artists there who were in awe of the landscape, I found myself indifferent. So instead I sought out the hustle and bustle of the big city. I needed concrete and neon light. All I had to do was get myself across that Golden Gate Bridge to the city… which I did by boat, bike, bus, car, and walking.

I worked on three different projects while in San Francisco. First, the post-production of a series of photographs I had shot literary hours before I left Auckland.  They were 1:1 scale photographs of art students’ studio tabletops that I exhibited during the residency’s Open Studio day, perhaps before you arrived.

Second, there was a photographic project that entailed me documenting the art making process of a fellow resident, Hadi Tabatabai, during his time at Headlands. I would go into his studio after hours and document the leftovers from his various projects. This developed out of my inability to make work or to know what to do with my large empty studio… and having an adjoining door that gave me easy access to his studio! Looking back I think I was more interested in getting to know the other artists there than using it as an opportunity to make work.


Finally, I started a drawing project partly out of chance encounters, where I worked with professional life models. I invited them to render me, reversing the usual role of artist and muse. This work was recently exhibited in Auckland.

MNH: The food at Headlands was really amazing! I still find myself craving that rabbit and bacon terrine. I enjoyed the social aspects of the residency: It was nice to share a meal with such a fun group of people after a productive day of solitude. Despite your busy social agenda last summer, you managed to get a lot of work done. Those photographs of the students’ stained tabletops are somehow immediately familiar as images but at the same time are surprising compelling pictures. Tell me more about the “chance encounter” drawings that you showed at Sue Crockford.

RM: I didn’t know the drawings would make it into a show at the time. It oddly all came about by meeting Mike, who was for all intents and purposes the acting mayor of San Francisco at an embassy party, which was on a New Zealand Navy ship, of all places. This was the first New Zealand Navy ship to enter US waters since the late1980s, a symbolic symbol of New Zealand and US relations. Everyone on-board was assigned an officer, who would make sure we had drinks and do introductions for us during the evening. In the following weeks Mike became my host for San Francisco, and later revealed how he had traveled through Australia working as a professional life model. This along with seeing naked male torso drawings in just about every house in San Francisco I went to, got me thinking… So I ended up asking Mike if he would draw me, really just as a way of doing something in the studio. 


When I got back to New Zealand I found this Taschen book on the history of self-portraits. Not exactly the best art reading literature, but it made me think the drawings were interesting and worth pursuing. So I worked with three other local life models and asked them to render me. And eventually I decided I should show these works, rather than leaving them in a folder under my bed!

MNH: Honestly, when I first saw those drawings, I thought to myself, “Richard should stick to photography and sculpture.” But, I figured there was more to the story, and indeed that anecdote completes the work!


One of the things that I most appreciate about your modus operandi is your seeming ability to make something out of nothing—or, perhaps more accurately, out of scraps or remainders or unexpected opportunities. For example, you used the phrase “chance encounters,” which I like.


I want to ask about the work you’re making from (or, perhaps, about?) Hadi Tabatai’s leftovers. Hadi, as you know as well as anyone, is an extremely meticulous artist. Almost absurdly meticulous. But you focused on his mess! Right? You seem to be attracted to messes, Richard. I assume Hadi knew you were also working in there, after he left for the day. What kind of negotiation did you have with him about that project?

RM: I didn’t know any of the artists before I arrived at Headlands, and I was really nervous about having to share a house with strangers. Not to mention the possibility I might be stuck in national park with snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats. But on the first day I met my housemates, including Hadi, and I immediately felt very at home. Hadi is a really considerate and centered person, and I enjoyed the conversations we would have at both the house and the studio. If you remember, my studio was on the second floor, to the right of the library. One wall was a partition with an adjoining door, with Hadi’s studio on the other side. I often had the artist’s version of writer’s block—or perhaps it was stage fright—and I would spend a good chunk of my day chatting with Hadi. Really, I was looking for any excuse to get out of my large and empty studio. I think some of the other artists were concerned for me because it seemed I wasn’t making much work.

And Hadi was always busy working away. He had a very 9-to-5, 5-day-a-week studio practice. Despite his rather controlled work, or perhaps because of its ascetic quality, I developed an interest in his spills and leftover bits and pieces. They seemed to resemble generically identifiable traces of what might be in an artist’s studio. I asked him if he would mind me using his studio as my source of art making, and he was very open to the idea. He would leave our shared door unlocked for me when he was not in the studio. I began taking pictures and bringing his leftovers into my studio. As both housemates and studio buddies the project just naturally unfolded, and the works going on in my studio would be a type of mirroring of what was happening on the other side of the wall in Hadi’s studio, with traces hinting at hidden processes. At the moment it looks like I am going to make an odd type of simulacra of his studio using the photographs.

MNH: Yes, I remember your studio configuration well. In part because I spent quite a bit of time in that library next door—less for the books, more for the Internet connection and VHS tape collection that encouraged our movie nights. I also traded music with Hadi. Anyway, your neighboring studios with the shared door immediately reminded me of adjoining motel rooms when I saw it. Or, perhaps, a film set version of adjoining motel rooms. I like the idea of Hadi working during the day—banker’s hours—with you working the night shift.

You mentioned that the other artists at Headlands seemed to be concerned that you weren’t making much work, which gets back to my observation that you are able to make something out of “nothing.” I have long been interested and invested in artists who use time as a kind of material. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about On Kawara, who has been noting his existence by making paintings of the day’s date for over four decades. Perhaps this also relates to Allan Kaprow’s notion—deeply influenced by his teacher John Cage—of the blurring of art and life. I suppose what I’m getting at is this: Aren’t you always working, Richard—even when it seems like you’re chatting casually or watching movies or checking your email or goofing off? I’m speaking about myself here, too. I’m a writer and not an artist, but for me, I can never clearly distinguish those categories of work and everything else. Can you?

RM: The studios did have a “film set” feel and functioned as a kind of stage for the artist. Maybe there’s a thesis topic there: I like the idea of making something out of nothing. It gives me freedom and the work a casualness that appeals.

The blur between art and life is definitely something I’m interested in.  As a student I did a fair bit of studio assisting, and one of the artists I worked for was Billy Apple. I remember chatting with you about his practice. (Gosh, that was two years ago now, and my memory is starting to slip.) For me, he is one of the earliest artists I encountered who dealt with the art/life blur. He changed his name to Billy Apple in the early 1960s, creating a new identity from which everything he does is art. His whole life so far, as Billy Apple, is now catalogued without distinction between artist life and personal life.

I can’t really distinguish when I am working and when I am not, but I have been giving it a go or at least trying, I seem to spend a big chunk of time just ordering things, so I might have a clearer understanding of what it is I am doing, and this goes for both in and out of the studio. Everything you do and see informs you somehow, at some point. Even discarding something informs us about what we are keeping.

There is this constant overlaying of life and art, It’s a hard thing to negotiate really. With the works that investigate Hadi’s studio making there is a shift and play with the role of the artist. Here I am adding another artist, with his practice, his rules, his order, his life, into the mix with my own.

Michael Ned Holte is a critic and independent curator based in Los Angeles. His writing frequently appears in print and online publications such as Artforum, East of Borneo, and Kaleidoscope, and an essay on Allan Kaprow and performance reenactment is included in the new anthology Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970-1983 (Routledge). He is a member of the art program faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.

* This text is a slightly condensed version of a conversation that took place via email from 2011 to 2012.

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