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Russell Maltz: Radical thrift

Russell Maltz, installation view

Contributed by Adam Simon / One of Russell Maltz’s singular achievements is to demonstrate how easily utilitarian objects and materials can be transported, Cinderella-like, into the alchemical realm of fine art. This is partly a property of the materials themselves: the symmetry, weightiness, and economy of products meant for construction. And it is partly a result of the grouping, piling, stacking and ordering of this material: the aesthetics of the aggregate. With Maltz, the least conspicuous intervention often creates the greatest amount of magic, and if a viewer is unsure what degree of intention went into a swath of fluorescent color painted across a stack of building material, that viewer is probably already engaged as anyone would be when confronted with a puzzle. Art like Maltz’s, which seems to challenge our expectation of what art is or should be, can ironically also be art of great practical utility insofar as it enhances our awareness of the world we inhabit. The closer the art is to the everyday object, the more it reflects on the reality we encounter daily.

Russell Maltz, installation view

This is not as simple as it sounds. In the age of Instagram, we are constantly reminded of picaresque languishing in the quotidian; think of the ubiquitous images of aging signage or looped telephone wiring or odd juxtapositions of architecture. (I admit to photographing the McDonald’s arches silhouetted against a monumental cathedral in Brooklyn.) What Maltz achieves goes a lot further than making us aware of the formal qualities of, say, a stack of lumber or cement blocks. His “Stacked” series does that, but it also challenges us with its impermanence – most of his large-scale pieces eventually revert to being material used in construction – and implicates us in what appear to be acts of vandalism (albeit of a highly refined sort).

Russell Maltz, installation view

There’s also an element of radical thriftiness, like what we feel in the presence of a work by Fred Sandback, who made monumental sculpture out of a few cents’ worth of yarn. With both Maltz and Sandback we experience shock that so much can be accomplished at so little expense. Just compare Maltz’s borrowing of construction material to Jeff Koons’s having his work fabricated by Italian artisans. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of money spent or a lot of work performed in Maltz’s work. This is faintly hilarious since Maltz references nothing so much as the kind of work that communists sang about and countless WPA murals referenced in the 1930s. It’s also work that he himself has done, having been for many years a field supervisor for construction in NYC. Materials of honest labor are repurposed to create something almost obscenely ephemeral.

Russell Maltz, installation view

We feel the weight of history in the first of three phases of the exhibition “Russell Maltz: Painted/Stacked/Site” at Minus Space in Dumbo, which runs from April 9 until July 30 with an additional nearby storefront installation and a slide show depicting found sites of construction material. This first phase, which ends on May 7, documents Maltz’s reclamation of an abandoned swimming pool at C.W. Post College on Long Island in the mid 1970s. Executed while he was still a graduate student at Post, the project began with Maltz amplifying the sculptural dynamics already present in the structure: the slightly more than human scale, the geometry and symmetry, the interface with the natural surroundings.

Russell Maltz, installation view

He was dealing with layers of familiarity – that of the empty pool as a functional structure disconnected from its original function, but also what was understood within the aesthetic of 1970s-era earthworks and site-specific sculpture. The pool already resembled a large-scale work by Smithson or Heizer or Holt. Maltz’s subtle interventions – repeatedly marking the interior surfaces with oil stick, extending the exterior dimensions, inserting a partial barrier at a particular depth – all accentuated the existing structure. Over the next two years, the project morphed into a collective venture involving 30 artists, all of them creating work in and for the pool, philosophically exploring the limits and boundaries of art and engaging in collective endeavor. These were optimistic times.

Russell Maltz, installation view

The second phase of the exhibition, from May 14 to June 18, will focus on Maltz’s “stacked” work, combining stacked industrial materials with uniform swaths of fluorescent paint. These works will evolve over the course of the month and viewers will be able to see works in various stages of development. More than any of the other series that comprise Maltz’s oeuvre, the stacked works make it clear why he considers himself primarily a painter. Paint applied over multiple sheets of plywood or glass, or on stacks of cement blocks (as if to indicate some future designation), compresses the space and merges separate objects into a single image, with unpainted areas announcing the difference between the image and object. More than sculpture, Maltz’s work interrogates the terms of painting, the interplay between perception and cognition, the way categories of experience determine how we see, and the contingent meaning of form.

Russell Maltz, installation view

The third and final stage will present work from the “Needle” series, arguably the work of his that most resembles formal sculpture. These are elegant combinations of different construction materials, cut to a uniform slenderness. The surprise comes when one realizes that each grouping of materials is simply presented on a single rod that projects from the wall. These sculptures are not constructed but rather are hung as one does with material that will be used at some other time. Once again, they are separate elements, resolved into a single image in the mind of the viewer. Once again, experience complicates appearance, and none of our assumptions are left intact.

“Russell Maltz: Painted/Stacked/Site,” Minus Space, 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn, NY. Through July 30, 2022.

About the Author: Adam Simon’s recent paintings combine corporate logotypes, stock photography, and tropes of Modernist design. He currently has work on view in “Mind the Gaps” at Osmos Address through April 30, and in “MOD,” at Platform Project Space, April 22-May 21, 2022.

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