David Malek makes his shiny, perfectly composed paintings of color and pattern with industrial enamel paint he buys from the hardware store and plywood he cuts into geometric shapes. The work is at once cosmic and corporeal (I can feel it in my heart but it’s still a mystery) and provides a dynamic analog for light and space, science fiction, pop music, drugs, time travel, poetry, optimism, and the sublime.

David Malek lives and works in New York and is represented by Smith-Stewart. The artist’s work is currently on view in his European solo debut David Malek: Safety Yellow at SAKS Gallery in Geneva through January 16, 2010.

I want to talk about your New York gallery debut at Smith-Stewart last year. The way you installed the work was incredibly dense. Like the works, the salon-style hanging was all shape and color, vibrant and concentrated.

I think that every artist who did a show in that storefront had to find a strategy to confront the space architecturally. It’s so tiny. I remember Nicole Cherubini made a partition and she had her sculptures on both sides of it. Kate Gilmore did this architectural intervention where she made a partition in the drywall and used that in a performance. In terms of a painting show I had to decide how I was going to tackle that space. One strategy could be a more restrained show with one piece per wall, but I decided to go the other way, over the top and just really attack it. I broke the rules a little bit, by putting so many pieces on one wall.

There’s a way that the installation really worked in the favor of the individual pieces too.

I don’t quite know quite how to describe it, but I wanted it to be a kind of installation, an architectural environment, where each painting was still self-sufficient and interesting in and of itself.

They’re all color and pattern, and they have these optical plays, and some of them even have real-world associations for me. There’s this diagonal gray and orange gradient painting that is like a sunset and reminds me of the movie L.A. Story with Steve Martin. It has a Los Angeles horizontal skyline, grey, and orange. Do you know what I’m talking about?

I’ve never seen that movie. My favorite painterly L.A. movie is To Live and Die in L.A. by William Friedkin. There are a lot of super-saturated colors in that movie, so maybe L.A. Story is the same way. The title of that diagonal painting is actually Evening Wavelengths, and it refers to one time we were up in the Berkshires and I was sitting on this huge rock with buddies from college and it was getting to be evening time and because I love light and color so much I just said to my friends, look, now we’re getting into the long wavelengths. It was the end of July, and the sky was getting to that point where it gets red and orange light. No one would ever know that except me, but that’s the specific moment it’s about.

No, I would never know that. The works don’t have that aspect of specificity to them, but they do retain that intensity of feeling. I absolutely feel the sunset in that one. There’s also that blue gradation painting that looks like a swimming pool, like the waves that happen in water, but a really rigid version of that. I love that painting.

Yeah. laughs… That painting is called Starfield Road, after the Sonic Youth song. Apart from the title, which describes a pathway to infinity, what I really like about that song are these huge crashing waves of reverb. So I was thinking about how to make a painting about that song. That song is pretty raw and listening to it again, maybe my picture is too tranquil and your swimming pool notion is closer too the mark…

I wanted to bring up Op Art…

People bring it up. I have no interest in Op Art whatsoever. In my opinion, orthodox Op Art is very dry and is interested in these very acid affects, like using high-contrast color scenarios like black-and-white.

Like Bridget Riley.

Exactly, Bridget Riley, for example. Or, Richard Anuskiewicz, using orange and blue just to use these electric color combinations. I’m not interested in assaulting the eye like that. I’m much more interested in these luminous and what I hope are beautiful harmonies—dare I say it. And painting. I don’t think op Art has any real interest in painting actually. Only in making these surfaces that are pre-programmed for certain ocular responses. What I’m interested in is more mysterious and subtle than that. A painter that I’m very much interested in from that same period is Jo Baer. She does these very sophisticated researches with her color bands that are almost invisible. You have to really look to see the effect.

Yeah, I love her. Her palette is much softer. She also doesn’t work with the center really, but with frames and edges. I think your work is all about the center.

That’s true—but you can’t have a center without an edge; and vise-versa.

I also think your work has a relationship to drugs and drug culture. Something like a trance-state, a sense of transcendence, or maybe transcendental meditation.

I don’t know quite how to articulate it, maybe it’s our generation’s vogue for sixties psychedelia, but I’m definitely interested in the idea of drugs—they are so powerful. I’ll outline this answer by listing a few other things that have had an influence on me, like the simple human question, what is an experience? Drugs are one avenue to achieve powerful subjective experiences; so is color, or sometimes the perception of our bodies in space. I read this book called Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey, and it’s about a guy who chronicles his descent into opium addiction, it’s around 1820, and he had all these hallucinogenic visions and dreams which he describes in a very scientific way. That’s the part that I find interesting. I’m not interested in any real spirituality—that word often comes up when people talk about my work. I’m interested in light, illumination, and feeling. Maybe my idea of feeling is the way others use the word spirit, I don’t know.

They are connected. Religious manuscripts were once illuminated manuscripts. There is a relationship between religious feeling and a sense of moving towards the light.

Continuing along this line, Robert Irwin really blew my mind when I was in college.

Lawrence Weschler wrote this amazing biography of Robert Irwin called Seeing Is Forgetting the Name Of the Thing One Sees.

I know, I’ve read it, and I’m excited about the new edition with color plates. I absolutely respect the rigor of his practice. Of course all art making is expression, but he was interested in the philosophical approach that was skeptical. I can hopefully approach that sentiment. In the book, you see that after all his research and science, Irwin sets up these beautiful, mysterious scenarios. One time I saw this Dan Graham pavilion sculpture, and for a split moment, because of the interaction of the different kinds of reflectivity and transparency, I had no idea what I was looking at. It was as if my perceptual circuits had broken down. In my layman’s understanding, I think Kant was saying that the Sublime is a momentary loss of the ego in the face of an unsettling percept. Graham’s sculpture fits that bill.

Your work has the same sense of mystery and awe, not knowing what you’re seeing, and the possibilities of inventing a new kind of illumination.

That’s why I’m totally opposed to Op Art. Op Art doesn’t provide any mystery at all. It offers a sure-fire, pre-wired ocular response. I’m more interested in something perceptual that happens but is a truly perceptual and subjective experience. I’m thinking of Paul Serusier, who is another artist I like a lot. He hung out with Gaugin in Brittany and he was into this weird mystical Catholicism. Illiterate peasants having revelations in the woods and this weird light, that sort of thing. His forest landscapes border on pure abstraction. He made this crazy painting where a huge glowing golden cylinder is floating in the sky just above the forest horizon. I made a painting of a golden diamond and dedicated it to him. I’m much more interested in this kind of looming mystery light, rather than having your eyes always tuned to the same specific response, which is what Op Art does. For example, in this yellow gradation painting, the inner band is so faint that it fades in and out of visibility.

Yes, it’s very difficult for me to tell where the white ends and the yellow bands begin. Hard to look at, like the sun.

Exactly. For me, that was a successful experiment. In terms of meditation, these paintings become my obsessions. Each one has to be painted over three or four times, and there’s all these blocks and patterns, and I have to mix each color in these little cups… It’s sort of an all-consuming process.

There’s also the aspect of your hand. You don’t use tape or rulers really and every once in a while you can see the waves of a hand trying to stay steady.

Sometimes I use tape [laughs].

But the line isn’t too exactingly even. There are odd places of mistakes and of personal gesture. You can’t even really tell until you stare at them so long you don’t know what you’re seeing. It’s trippy.

I think the human touch is very important. It’s one of many elements. Which reminds me, we haven’t talked about science fiction yet…

Okay, tell me about science fiction.

Science fiction interests me very much. It has to do with what we were saying about the nature of subjective experience. Science fiction is often misinterpreted to be about spaceships and the future and aliens and other worlds. It’s a genre that allows authors to talk about trippy and weird subjectivities, and whether it’s taking place in the future or has robots in the story is irrelevant, but is just an architecture that allows for these other ideas to be explored. In my favorite film Blade Runner, there’s a cop whose job it is to kill robots, but he can never be sure whether or not he is a robot. It’s just a metaphor for how do we know anything? or, how do we know who we are? Science fiction is a genre that opens up to these much-larger-than-the-world questions.

The other element about science fiction, for cinema especially, is that color and light very often play a key role. Going back to Blade Runner, every android has glowing red eyes, but only when seen from certain angles. We know that Harrison Ford’s character is an android because at a certain moment you do see this glitch of red in his eyes. There are also these crazy flying cop-cars in the movie, that when they move through the atmosphere, the camera flares and the light becomes that diamond-shape, it’s these neat orbs of camera flare around the light sources.

There’s also 2001 of course, and Sunshine by Danny Boyle where the sun is burning up and becoming a white orb and the earth is freezing, so they have to pilot this spaceship that’s loaded with a neutron bomb into the sun to re-ignite it. It’s a goofy scenario, but it’s beautiful because the entire front of their spaceship is made of a domed mirror to protect them from radiation. As the film goes on you know there’s action and mystery, but it becomes a meditation on the sublime because they’re flying right into this ultimate object.

I’m staring at this yellow-to-white orb painting as you’re talking about this. It seems too perfect—elements of time travel and the sublime.

Yeah, this painting is actually called To Build A Private Sun, which is a lyric by Guided By Voices—the most alcoholic band ever. So there’s another plane of reality, the drugs and the poetry of the lyrics. That song actually really influenced me, I listened and thought, “how would I go about building a private sun?” “What would that be?” This painting is actually a response to that question.

A meditation on poetry, the sun, the sublime… and perfect circles.

Yes, geometry. And psychedelic music. And industrial paint.

That’s right, house paint. The title of your new show up now at SAKS Gallery in Geneva is Safety Yellow.

Safety Yellow is the name of the industrial enamel paint I use which is also used in New York for street signs and subway railings. All my paintings are made with industrial enamel paint, but there’s an interesting dialectic with yellow—it’s sunny, electric and toxic at the same time. Another important thing I haven’t mentioned yet is optimism. I think human nature is essentially good.

The yellows and pinks in the SAKS show are so prominent, and yes, absolutely optimistic. You’ve also given them so much more space than in your New York show. Some paintings have a whole wall.

The gallery is a total fishbowl with huge vitrines separated by a central wall, so you can see into both sides from the street, but not really at the same time. It was a great way to bridge a forward-looking idea of spaciousness with my last show. So one room has one large painting per wall, and the project room in the back has some of the salon style hanging which functions as a vestigial left-over from the previous show. I think it works together, almost musically.

Safety Yellow @ SAKS Gallery

David Malek @ Smith-Stewart

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