At least since late-1960s Process Art (and probably earlier), we’ve been aware of the aesthetics of the construction site as a kind of ephemeral sculpture garden or inadvertent installation piece, featuring provisional structures made of non-traditional materials (bricks, boards, cinderblocks, coils of rope) in site-responsive arrangements. Staged for utility, such environments merge art and life.
But the relationship of the medium of painting to the building trades has been less obvious, or at least less public, in part because pigmented industrial coatings usually appear on the commercial job site behind closed doors, gates, or fences, out of the view of passersby.
The New York painter Russell Maltz has considered this dynamic for decades, producing a body of work widely admired in Europe but underknown in the US. Maltz’s architectural-scale site interventions don’t often migrate intact to the “white cube,” but his current exhibition at Minus Space, Painted / Stacked / Suspended (on view through October 28), demonstrates the artist’s insistence on facticity over illusion: “It is clear to me that paint is a material that is applied to another material.”
The oldest work in this beautiful, invigorating show is “STACK-Safety Yellow” (1985/1992), which consists of six hefty sheets of plywood painted (but for a slim margin at the edges) with yellow traffic enamel and horizontally arranged, with a misleading appearance of effortlessness, against the wall to a length of nine feet.
Refurbished seven years after its original fabrication, the piece pushes hard at the boundaries of what a painting is even as it observes that medium’s most basic conventions: pigment suspended in a fluid binder applied to one side of a flat substrate, allowed to dry undisturbed, and placed face-out from the supporting wall.
“STACK-Safety Yellow” is a reminder of (or an introduction to) the provisionality inherent in much of Maltz’s outdoor work, such as his numerous projects in which he selectively paints orderly stacks of lumber or pallets loaded with concrete masonry units (CMUs), usually in florescent red-orange or yellow (a color that tends toward greenish in photographs). Following this often brief (and photo-documented) “assembled phase,” the materials are utilized in a construction project in the manner in which they were originally intended, their status as an art object thenceforth eliminated or — an ontological question — merely obscured.
Maltz thus complicates the quandary posed by Robert Morris regarding the status of his “scatter” pieces while they are in storage. If, as Morris claims, his materials constitute an artwork any time they are arranged in a manner that is responsive to their architectural setting, then by that definition they must be an artwork even when packed in crates and stuffed into a closet.
Not only does Maltz ask us to recognize a load of CMUs as a legitimate painting substrate on par with a length of canvas or linen, he insists further that it remains so after being broken down and mortared together as the wall of an office building or shopping center.
“S.P./BK #113” (2013) harnesses the force of gravity as a compositional device. It consists of three squarish plywood plates suspended from a steel post bracket protruding from the wall. The bracket is inserted through holes drilled into the sheets of plywood, and owing to the varied placement of the holes relative to the panels’ center of gravity, the wood splays as it sags, forming an irregular 12-pointed star.
A large, hard-edged section of the front-most plate is painted with black enamel with slivers of edges left untouched; we gather that the other two plates are similarly addressed, though the works’ installation (in the gallery’s display window on Water Street) makes it hard to be sure. In any case, the simple graphic treatment of the partially painted panels becomes exponentially more complex as, having found their balance on the bracket, they interact visually.
The work made me think of whitewater kayakers who surrender to the unrelenting force of the river, channeling that power to execute precise maneuvers as they are swept downstream.
A second, more recent example from this series, “S.P./BK #117” (2017), is similarly constructed and of exactly the same dimensions. Its front-most panel is predominantly unpainted plywood, which brings into play another of painting’s defining fundamentals, the figure/ground relationship.
Maltz shares some concerns with the “Radical Painting” group of the 1970s and ’80s, who examined their medium at the root level, probing the nature of the support, the properties of paint, the painting’s attachment to the wall, its relationship to the viewer, and so on. But his work has little of the rarified austerity characteristic of the work of Marcia Hafif, Eric Saxon, Phil Sims, and others of that cohort.
For sheer elegance it is not lacking, however. The four remaining works in the show are from the Needle series, dated 2017. Beautifully installed in the space, these are tall, extremely slender variations on the paradigm of panels hung via drilled holes from a post bracket. (Two smaller Needles, not on the exhibition checklist, are installed in the gallery’s office.)
The Needles are made with various combinations of enamel, acrylic paint, and polyurethane on thin strips of wood, plywood, and/or pegboard. They become noticeably narrower toward the bottom end, which is perhaps two inches from the floor. The length of the bracket (and thus the third dimension of these works) is seven inches.
Measuring more than 10 feet high, the tallest of the Needles is “S.P./Blue+Blue #117,” which consists of two plywood components painted a stately blue, and a couple of slightly battered 1x2s that are spliced together on the recto side with a raw wood slat and a few screws. Sections at the top and bottom are painted white.
A significant variable within each of the Needles is the placement of the drilled holes relative to the top of these suspended components. That distance ranges from half an inch to maybe two feet, and the difference subtly complicates the hierarchy implied by the components’ relative size, placement, chroma, and physical condition. The dynamic of parts to the whole seems restless, unsettled; the works may be suspended, but they are animated nevertheless. So while the Needles might seem, at first, a far cry from Maltz’s environmental work, they also carry the weight of painting as a speculative response to a shifting set of circumstances.
Russell Maltz: Painted / Stacked / Suspended continues at Minus Space (16 Main Street, Suite A, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through October 28.