Artist David Malek composes otherworldly yet industrial paintings that at first glance look as if they could be digital, but instead are painstakingly handcrafted, rooted in symmetry and color reminiscent of another time. He does all of this with ordinary, hardware store bought materials and a head full of philosophy. Here he talked with Timothée Chaillou about his unique technique, sci-fi leanings and the reasons he is not an abstract expressionist.
Timothée Chaillou: Sol LeWitt once said: “prolixity created simplicity and unity.” Do you agree with that?
David Malek: I don’t know if it was tedium that created clarity, but surely effort has something to do with it. During a studio visit, someone once said: “practice makes perfect.” I think there is a lot of truth in that. Technically, the paintings are made by superposing many layers of paint. First, I draw the lines of the image with a pencil. Then I paint each band of color, one after the next, proceeding from the lightest color to the darkest. I put as many as ten layers of paint. Paintings such as Inverse Hexagon have as many as twenty seven colors. Multiplied by ten, that’s a lot of lines. Clearly at a certain point something obsessive is taking place psychologically on my part. Yet at the same time, objectively, something almost alchemical takes place. With each added layer, the paintings become more beautiful, luminous and pleasing. So through the force of effort, or tedium or prolixity, if you will, interesting art takes place.
Timothée: What would you like your pictures to convey?
David: I am not sure I can answer this question generally, because each painting, exhibition or project is different. For one show in Lyon, the curators employed a term used by French geographers called “The Diagonal of the Void,” that describes a vast unpopulated area in eastern France. In the case of the exhibition, they used this term as a point of departure for a sci-fi interpretation of space. For that show, I made my very first gray scale Icosahedron painting and I found it very successful. When Chris Rawson invited me to make a project in his gallery, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to share the kind of work I had shown out of town with a local (New York) audience. So in many ways Hexagons was the logical extension of La Diagonale du Vide. Given the context of the gallery space, I was curious to play with mirror images and the ideas for the paintings took shape from there. The two Icosahedron paintings are inverted mirror images. The icosahedron is a regular polyhedron that is part of a series of platonic solids. This form therefore relates to the history of philosophy, alchemy and proto-science. The two concentric hexagons are mirrored images as well. What inspired me for these paintings was the use of hexagonal shaped corridors in science fiction films. For example in Outland, 1982, hexagonal corridors play a critical role in the film’s climax. I was curious to use the concentric hexagon imagery from films as a way to create illusion in a painting. The last big painting, Benzene 2, hung alone on a shorter wall and so I tried to imagine a painting that “mirrors” itself. Hence the use of an equally divided surface. It feels kind of like an origami structure to me. Last, I placed a small painting near to the floor as a kind of punctuation. I hoped that it could provide a kind of narrative to the installation, where the large paintings were “crystalizing” or expanding or evolving to create further possibilities. I hope the interior logic each painting corresponds to the over-all logic of the installation and that a theoretical viewer might come to understand this through looking.
Timothée: Do you think that your paintings are melancholic?
David: I do think that the apperception of colors and forms has a direct emotional result. Yet every individual’s subjective response is different. For this reason, I am very skeptical of theories of color that say for example that blue is “sad” and that red is “passionate.” Colors change constantly according to their context and we can surely find examples to the contrary. Certainly I want the paintings to convey feeling, but I cannot define for anyone else what they will experience. For my part, I didn’t consider the paintings “melancholic” when I made them. I think I was searching for a luminous and harmonious affect. At the same time, I think they are interesting because they have a nice synthesis between hot and cold. They are “cold” because they are very measured, achromatic and shiny, but at the same time they are “hot” because they are very painterly and there are lots of human errors. Perhaps when looking at art a feeling arrives from our understanding of this synthesis.
Timothée: “Luminous and harmonious affect”- is that a definition of the sublime?
David: Perhaps. Maybe artists are working with only a few key ideas and the advances in style and technology only provide new means by which to look at them, but do not alter their fundamental content. Nietzsche talks a lot about an “a-historical sense”. From my understanding, this is a notion of history that is non-chronological, where ideas, or works of art for that matter, share as it were a common plane and echo across time and space outside of linear time. He came to this conclusion after his study of the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers whose ideas were shockingly modern. For example they deduced the atomic theory of matter and were skeptical of the existence of the gods. Heraclitus, standing in the river, proposed that the universe is in perpetual flux, which influenced Nietzsche’s concept of the “Eternal Return” and shares similarities with contemporary physics. When he read these old Greek texts, he felt as if he were reading the work of a contemporary, someone with whom he shared a great deal, although they were in fact separated by thousands of years. I mention all this to illustrate the idea that if we are talking about melancholy or the sublime, maybe there exist key concepts that don’t actually change. A simple way to put it is—maybe there is nothing new. And so maybe there isn’t a “contemporary” sublime or “contemporary” melancholy, but rather these emotional states persist unchanged across time.
Timothée: Do you think of your paintings as sensual?
David: Yes, very much. I hope very much that the paintings elicit feeling in a potential viewer. Although I have no way of knowing or predicting what that feeling will be. Although some of the entries of the word “sensual” in the dictionary have a negative connotation, I do think the term can apply to the paintings. First, sensual is that which appeals directly to the senses. I think the paintings appeal directly to vision and the joy of looking. The moral dimension of sensuality has a negative connotation because it can be considered lewd or unrestrained, although I do not think the paintings can suffer that critique. Interestingly, the sensual also has a philosophic dimension. First, it is considered materialistic and godless. Second, it pertains to philosophic sensationalism, the doctrine that knowledge can only be obtained through direct sensory experience. I like to paint because it provides an epistemological challenge. By mixing and matching colors and by engaging images directly, I wonder if I can arrive at some kind of understanding. So, painting is for me a kind of pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophic project. Yes, the paintings are sensual because they correspond to a certain materialist worldview, they provide an epistemological exercise and they appeal to the pleasure of looking at beautiful surfaces.
Timothée: Agnes Martin once shockingly said: “I considered myself as an abstract expressionist.” Do you think the same about your own production?
David: Certainly not. The Museum of Modern Art recently mounted an exhibition devoted to abstract expressionism and I found it very strange. I think great artists such as Martin, Reinhardt and Newman open many rich doors for minimalism, the monochrome, conceptual art, phenomenology and even installation and therefore maybe they are wrongly categorized as “expressionist.” What stuck me in the recent MoMA exhibition was while those artists abounded in self-seriousness, they lacked self-awareness and humor. I recently read Plato’s Symposium. It treats a very serious subject —the nature of love in life, both romantic and between friends. But the book is super-ironic and really funny. While the philosophers are philosophizing, they are drinking and making jokes at both each other and themselves. I think serious works of art shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Works of art should display a sense of self-awareness that can be ironic or humorous. Having said that, I am not sure the term “abstract expressionism” has any sense for artists today. Earlier, I discussed some of the ideas behind the work. The influences range from science-fiction movies, polyhedral solids, alchemy, crystals, mirrored images, an exhibition about French geography, Google image searches, etc. At the same time, the way the paintings are made, they are almost like copies of themselves because each painting is made the exact same way and they are painted over and over again to build up the surface. From what I understood at the exhibition at MoMA, the painters of that time were seeking some kind of direct gesture that was “free” of external influences. I feel more at home in our own time where we are skeptical of an “original” and prefer copies of copies of copies.
Timothée: From my point of view words like recycling, appropriation and postproduction are just theories which only help the critics not the artists. Are these theories important for you or not relevant?
David: I admit that my answer to your previous question may have seemed a little bit like “art theory 101.” I don’t begin projects as illustrations of theories. Yet I think critical tools are helpful to everyone, not just critics, because they provide perspectives with which to engage ideas and works of art. While answering your question about abstract expressionism, I was trying to frame my response in the context of an exhibition I had recently seen. I have no way of knowing whether it’s a matter of instinct or taste, but I felt a kind of rejection of those artists, especially the “brushy” ones. It seemed to me that those artists were self-serious but not self-conscious in a way that I didn’t like. Whatever theoretical definition we choose to apply, I think we can all agree that today our attitude toward artistic production is more detached and self-aware than in the 1950’s. I am not sure what it means to “lose a sense of the ecology of images.” It seems more that we have been discussing an “archeology” of images and ideas. Yes, I think it is important to maintain an awareness of that history or archeology.
Timothée: How do you look at, for instance, Philippe Decrauzat, Richard Anuskiewicz, Victor Vasarely, or Bridget Riley’s work? In your work what can be identify to the work of these artists and what move you away?
David: This question is very difficult for me to answer because I have not yet figured it out for myself. In my own recent thinking, I have been trying to distinguish between an art of ocular phenomena, which I find very interesting, and “op art” which I find much less so. As a young student I was initially attracted to the novelty of “orthodox” op art such as the work of Vasarely and Anuskiewicz, but today, with further study and education, I find this kind of work very mawkish. I recently saw a film by Brian de Palma about the 1966 Responsive Eye exhibition at the MoMA which I think illustrates this mawkishness. Not only that, but the early black and white paintings of Bridget Riley, for example are terribly violent. They are painful to look at. I don’t think I am interested in that kind of visual violence. At the same time, other artists have employed similar formal means-bands of color, contrast of hue, etc. to create an art of ocular response that I find very rich and open-ended. I include here classic artists such as Josef Albers and Jo Baer, but also peers such as Phillipe Decreuzat or Alex Kwartler or artists one generation older such as Rebecca Quaytman, Dan Walsh or Chris Martin.
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In a complex argument he basically says that science operates in two modes; what he terms “scientific revolutions” and “normal science.” Revolutions are those moments in history that change the game, such as the invention of the telescope. But Kuhn argues that periods of normal science are almost even more interesting. That is when after a revolution the scientists return to their laboratories and continue and deepen their research. They adapt to the new paradigm and explore its specificities; for example, building bigger and better telescopes with greater and greater magnification. Perhaps art operates similarly. Perhaps we are in a post-revolutionary period where artists are deepening the specifics of what was discovered in the twentieth century. I think I am conducting normal science.
Timothée: Do you try to neutralize the idealist and mystical duty sometimes contained in abstract art?
David: I think we are compelled to make paintings because we are curious to see a new image. Artists have ideas and the work of art is the physical manifestation that communicates the idea in the world. I admire artists like LeWitt where ideas precede and generate the work of art. But this does not mean that ideas precede reality. Instead ideas are a part of reality in the minds of individuals, they can be physically measured with instruments, and are willed into the world to share with others. Nor do abstract paintings represent an alternative reality. Rather they are real illusions in this world. Now, these illusions in painting; their properties of color and proportion, illicit powerful feelings in us. Are these feelings “mystical?” Spirituality entered our discussion of the sublime above and I described how the sublime can be understood as a function of proportion, not “spirit.” I really do not know what people mean when they say “mystical” or “spiritual” and I replace these two confusing notions with term “feeling” or “emotional response.”
Let’s take a seemingly unrelated example. The practice of yoga is often called “spiritual.” Indeed, during yoga, we feel many unusual feelings and if we are lucky we can sometimes even enter strange states of consciousness. Do we have these feelings because of access to “spirituality” or an “alternate reality”? Or are they instead the result of muscular activity, heart rate, oxygen conversion, and mental focus? I think it is clearly the latter case. These feelings are special and mysterious, but are firmly grounded in this world. I think the same is true for the experience of works of art.
Timothée: Do you think that in the pyramid of things forms come before ideas?
David: Yes. Do ideas precede reality or does reality precede ideas? From my understanding of philosophy and life-experience up to this point, I agree with the latter premise. Cartesianism doesn’t make sense to me. Just because we can imagine a perfect thing does not make it so. The idea exists, as measurable in electromagnetic waves and calories, but the thing imagined does not.
Timothée: Is your work materialistic?
David: Yes, definitely. I defend a materialist understanding of the universe and I hope that if my work is successful, that this will be communicated to others. We live in a time of regression on many cultural, political and moral fronts and it is the responsibility of conscious people to stand up for what is right. Even if I am doing the modest work of a painter, as opposed to something more engaged, I hope that my work is consistent with ideas I defend. In this country they are still trying to stop the teaching of Darwinism in schools, for example. Torture is being practiced around the world and there are multiple illegal military occupations. We must all do our part to fight against this nonsense, even if our actual engagement is very far away from the school board council or the centers of government. I would hope that my work is one small weapon in this arsenal. Admittedly, I am only making abstract paintings, but I ask myself “To what kind of subject do these images appeal?” or “To which ideology do they correspond?” I think they are anchored in the Enlightenment, Humanist, Scientific, Materialist, Democratic tradition. While perhaps my work requires a certain familiarity with the history of painting, I don’t consider this a reactionary position. Hardly, given the present state of things these positions are worth defending.
Physicists distinguish between the Strong and Weak Forces. The Strong force is the atomic force, which can obviously cause a cataclysmic explosion. The Weak force is gravitation, which attracts all matter across infinite distances. Maybe works of art function like the Weak Force, subtly but surely, across time and space. They cannot change the world as directly as politics or revolution, but they can seep into consciousness and alter individuals’ relation to perception of the world. One individual at a time.
Timothée: Do you think that your paintings are in an altered state more than being altered images? Are you more interested by an altered perception than simply making an altered object?
David: I like very much the idea of “altered states.” Recently, I was looking at a large mostly black and white painting by the New York painter Chris Martin. This painting has a black ground with seven white undulating forms equally dividing the space, kind of like a row of sinuous columns. This painting is very strange because my initial gestalt of it was that seven equal undulating white columns equally divided a black negative space. However, with continued looking, one realizes that the undulating columns are not equal at all, that each is unique and they are not parallel. This had a totally destabilizing affect on me. My initial percept and that which gave itself after sustained effort were opposite. This had happened before with a sculpture by Dan Graham. The piece was a triangular solid about two meters high. Each face consisted of different types of glass, two way mirror, etc. While my mind understood the sculpture to be a triangular solid, my visual perception of it completely broke down. I could no longer comprehend the visuality of the transparency and reflection. I would call this a “trippy” or “psychedelic” experience or an “altered state.” Now, their work and mine have different concerns, I think. But, if my work is successful I would like it to have a similar “far out” feeling. Perhaps this can occur, for example, in the tension between the illusion of the image and the materiality of the surface.
Timothée: Do you agree with what Olivier Mosset said, that: “What I want is the opportunity to see the painting for itself.”
David: Yes, I think that is very accurate. Olivier Mosset also once said, “I don’t know how to make a painting. So, I make one, and then I make another one.” I like this idea very much. Making paintings is like doing experiments where each one leads to a new idea, a new painting. Often, before I begin working on a painting, I ask myself, “What would it look like if I made this or that painting?” The only way to find out is to do it. I don’t have anyway of knowing whether it’s a question of taste or of instinct or of education, but I have always been attracted to Apollonian artists such as Sol LeWitt or Francois Morellet where an idea precedes and generates the work. I make a painting in order to see what it looks like. Another painter I respect very much, Dan Walsh, once said, “You should be able to squeeze about five paintings out of each painting you make.”
Top Image: David Malek, Astronaut Food, 2009