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David Malek

In the studio photograph that David Malek sent me yesterday, a series of five octagons inscribed with aluminum paint on a matte black background are shown.   Five different canvas formats are like as many portraits of this perfectly centered eight-sided figure.  This could be the representation of the idea that one makes of abstraction, like an extrapolation of a cosa mentale.  With these reduced means – two colors or rather two opposing luminosities that bring out the geometric form – the series is probably the most « concentrated » of David’s that I have seen so far.  It is in line with the « binary » series – to use the artist’s term – of canvases created in the last two years where a colored geometric figure stands out against a contrasting background. In this endeavor to reduce or focus the composition, David Malek seems to have abandoned what characterized many of his paintings made between 2013 and 2018: the representation of forms radiating from the center, subtle gradations of color which extend the motif to the edge of the painting or of grids dividing the canvas.  One can see in the affirmation of this increasingly stripped down, refocused abstraction, a firm rejection of the personal and emotional expression with which one generally invests painting, and in particular the use of color.   On the contrary, I would argue – following the example of Isabelle Graw on the subject of Ellsworth Kelly’s¹ black and white paintings – that in this case it is more likely a revitalization of the medium through a stronger investment of its author’s subjectivity. As if he had gained confidence in the capacity of painting to produce its own radiance – an inner radiance – and that it then became useless to represent its aura by gradations or centrifugal flashes; it became necessary to give it substance by playing more on the concentration of light, its effects of matter and of contrast.  An « internalized » painting that David Malek says he produces « blindly », without knowing precisely what he is looking for or accomplishing, apart from the fact of making the idea of a painting appear before his eyes, of replicating on the canvas the experience or memory of an image, of a form imprinted furtively on his retina.

In a second email, I receive the protocol that David Malek followed to make his octagons. He inscribed the 8-edged figure inside a circle whose diameter is equal to the width of the canvas. The thickness of the silver strip is calculated so as to leave a black negative space of an equivalent height in the center of the octagon and above it. A protocol in geometric terms, as is often the case in David Malek’s work, which thus seems to relate to a pictorial tradition dating back to the 15th century – a time when Leon Battista Alberti theorized in his treatise De Pictura the importance of the painter’s scientific posture, building his work on mathematical foundations and perfectly mastering geometry.   In this sense, the series of octagons evokes for me – in a flat version – the repeated attempts of the Italian painter Paolo Uccello to represent a mazzocchio, a geometrical representation of a multifaceted Florentine hat.  With the difference that – in the case of Malek and his contemporaries – geometric construction is not so much an attempt to model the things of the world as the reintegration into the picture space of things that the world already presents to us as abstract².  In the manner of Ellsworth Kelly or Alain Biltereyst, and to recuperate their respective expressions, the forms brought into play are « already made » or « goings-on », abstractions presented in the street, on an album cover or on a screen.  Within David Malek’s paintings, these geometries return and subsist just as they persist in the productions on which the painter continues to gaze: the ancient architecture of ziggurats or medieval cathedrals, satellite images, science fiction films.  The circles drawn in them are the outline of a planet in the darkness, the oblong shapes, inspired as much by the lingas of Indian tantric paintings as by a magic mirror in a Disney cartoon.    By alternately summoning these references, David Malek’s series emphasize the temporal and spatial density of these abstract forms that signal both a millennial past and a fantasized future.

Recently, it occurred to me that the images from which David Malek draws often emanate from powerful industries or authorities with significant productive capital, whether it be Hollywood studios with their sets and special effects, space agencies equipped with probes and supercomputers or, in another era, religious powers commissioning at great expense the construction of megaliths, temples or altars.   With regard to the economy of the painter, working with few resources and in an artisanal way through a long process of applying coats of paint and sanding, is a method established as a way to rival these effective and « expensive » images.

In this way, it is easier to understand why he sometimes tries to mimic the particular brilliance of the screens on which the paintings are often viewed today, by using industrial enamel paints and why he uses the camera of a smartphone to test the contrasts of the colors. Or why it is necessary to produce several versions with the ambition to always improve the result.  As they are integrated into the surface on the canvas, these forms emerge in another regime of power – the one that has always been conferred on painting – and through which the energy of a handmade image transpires.  And this is perhaps what the painter aspires to in this blind practice, the attraction for these ready-made and infinitely reproducible figures, as much as the search for the singular and irregular perfection that craftsmanship opposes to them.  David Malek’s paintings exist between the light of the authority or interface that diffuses them and the shadow of their slow labor.  We do not know if the eye of the viewer looking at them is focused on the luminous contour of the form or on the yawning gap it leaves in the heart of the painting.  But this central void makes his canvases like so many openings into color, passages leading from one abstract reference, from one status of the image, to another.  It is not surprising then that the motif of a door (like the one Burt Lancaster desperately tries to open in the film The Swimmer) regularly appears in the paintings.

And the last painting David showed me is an octagon – blue this time. It mimics the outline of a monumental doorway of a former hospital that the painter passes by every day on his way to the studio.

Elsa Vettier
September 2020

¹ Isabelle Graw, « Painting as ‘Object-Tableau’, Ellsworth Kelly at Haus der Kunst, Munich », in The Love of Painting, p.103
² In this regard, we speak of « found abstraction, » an expression coined by the American critic and curator Bob Nickas.

David Malek

Binaries

These paintings take the title “binary” from their simple composition – a solid figure or an outline delineated on a gray or blue ground. In appearance, The equation is indeed very simple. Standard format canvases (162 x 130 cm) have a succession of geometric forms placed in their centers. Worked and reworked with industrial enamel paint, they seem to have been embedded within the canvas itself, or to radiate forth from it. That is what these binary paintings are until you potentially take a photo of them with your telephone and reduce the contrast. Surprisingly in some of them, the colors and their luminous interaction cancel themselves out and when the contrast is reduced, only a uniform gray surface remains. It is as if the duality of these images only existed for a moment in the retina.

Within the series, however, it is all about persistence – retinal persistence. And the way in which these forms imprint the membrane of the eye after they have passed through several regimes of reproduction contributing to further abstract their contours. Before inscribing itself on the surface of the canvas, this blue circle was a photograph of Pluto taken by a deep-space probe, an image that DavidMalek saw in a documentary on his computer screen on Arte.tv. That fluorescent pink disk is a sunrise perceived during a transatlantic flight equipped with blue liquid crystal portholes that modify our perception of the atmosphere. These abstract forms are lifted from the intimacy of our screens, which link halos from the furthest reaches of space, to the proximity of ancient architecture that continues to exhibit the formal repertoire of bygone age.

These canvases disprove the idea according to which the retina has a memory of a tenth of a second. They suggest rather that the persistence of pictorial abstraction through time is fed by traveling and the recycling of motifs – from the pagan iconography of Egyptian gods to the futurist imagery of science fiction(such as the solar disk or a pyramid rising from the horizon), medieval architectural motifs taken up with the aesthetics of electronic music. This phenomena of the cyclical reappearance of motifs applies itself to David Malek’s artistic practice, in which motifs return like so many resurgences, like strobes in the deployment of a continual research on abstraction.

If the large formats tend to keep you at a distance in order to better apprehend them, I personally advise you to approach them so that your eye can caress their velvety surfaces, and see the leavings of color that remain around the figures. David Malek completes his paintings in a research of perfection and tension that is necessary for a dialectic between the figure and the ground. Interdependent and contradictory, they must synthesize themselves in the eye and in the mind in the form of a third element, a color or an image that does not belong to either postulate by itself. And, while these geometric figures are linked to esoteric imagery, the search for perfection takes on a spiritual aspect. The continual effort in the production of these canvases comes to resemble a kind of asceticism. The artist paints these figures in the way that one daily executes yoga postures, tirelessly repeating the same gestures in the aim of approaching an ideal equilibrium. This series of ten canvases radiate the color and the energy of the way they were made, they have arrested the image of a repeated gesture, of a retina that is perpetually impressed.

Elsa Vettier, February 2020

Excerpt from PIÈCES-MEUBLÉS 1995 / 2016 exhibition catalogue by Bob Nickas

Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris France.

In deciding to mark the 20th anniversary of Pièces — Meublés, it was clear that a new show would be more ambitious, focused definitive.  As pleased as we were with what had been done in 1995, the original show was more a collection of pieces than a fully orchestrated ensemble meant to create a larger puzzle.  In the twenty-plus years that have passed, Patrick Seguin has on a number of occasions built and exhibited the demountable houses and structures that were designed by Prouvé between 1944 and 1950.  Conceived with prefabricated elements, easily assembled and disassembled, they proved that good design could be practical and economically viable, yet without any lack of innovation, and that even ‘industrial’ architecture could be warm, inviting, beautiful, and, in the case of his school buildings in particular, aspirational — a lasting achievement.  For this anniversary exhibition, we decided to offer Prouvé furniture to the invited artists, and to have one of his houses built in the gallery, furnished with art and seemingly inhabited. In addition a Richard Artschwager table, a David Adamo radiator, and photo imprinted curtain by Walead Beshty inside, there was a female mannequin by John Miller, who appeared as the ‘lady of the house.’  Two of its original panels were replaced with a ‘brick wall’ painting by Kelley Walker, a double-sided diptych fabricated in association with the architect William Haskas, created to function as part of its exterior and interior skin. The painting was not hung on a gallery wall, but would become part of the house’s structure, its ‘mortar’ comprised, appropriately enough, of collaged Prouvé images.  Outside, in front of the house, one of Albert Oehlens’s abstract tree paintings was hung, while behind there was a small garden of bamboo sculptures by Elaine Cameron-Weir. And so the Prouvé house created a stage-set for the exhibition, in and around which, artworks — and visitors — would move. IN this mise-en-scène, due to the fact that not all the wall panels were in place, and that the roof was left open, inside and outside were allowed to intermingle.  This openness emphasized the organic nature of an architecture meant for the landscape, even in spite of its construction within an enclosed space, a gallery interior.

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In considering the Prouvé pieces that were chosen by the artists, we learn something about their eye and their sensibilities.  Nathaniel Axel chose a daybed on which to place an ‘erotic box,’ with one ohis ghostly etched book covers hung behind, identiying the bed as a site of seduction overseen by the spirit of Alain Robbe-Grillet.  The vestiaire selected by Carol Bove, an artist for whom the activity of collection and arrangement is important, was meant as the setting for a sculpture whose elements may be imagined as placed inside and on its shelves, or as having just been removed.  In choosing Prouvé’s Bergère lecture hall chair from 1951, Alex Da Corte reveals his attraction to objects from which a sense of fetishistic, perverse figuration and narrative may be derived. Ryan Foerster’s printing plates have a material correspondence with the aluminum used by Prové, not only alongside the building panel that serves as their window, but which prominently appears in the poster he designed and had printed for the show.  The highly-keyed retinal painting by David Malek echoes the sort of ancient wooden doors one regularly encountered in France prior to the modernization exemplified by Prouvés forward thinking, a past that Malek re-imagines as a portal to the future. Adam McEwen’s re-engineering of a classic demountable chair, seemingly skewered by one of its aluminum tubes, amplifies its structural design and transforms it from a place of rest to an object of contemplation.  In also rendering his intervention as a sponge painting, McEwen overlays the ‘armchair’ of Matisse and the famous advice of Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Virginia Overton’s selection of Prouvé’s swing-jib lamp of 1951 illuminates, both literally and figuratively her own work with lighting fixtures, lightboxes and LED technology. Mai-Thu Perret’s ceramics, including a dark head and hand emerge from the African Kambala wood of a round Guéridon table.  The opticality that sinuously animates Nicolas Roggy’s painting can be seen to play off the wave form, the onde, in the fixed-blade sun shutter originally designed for schools in Cameroon in 1964.  Andra Ursuta’s ‘butt stool’ cast from the artist’s own body, joins a pair of the designer’s stools produced in the early ‘50’s whose pressed aluminum seats conform to the contours of the seated human body.  In this grouping of the stools by Prouvé and Ursuta there is an interplay of positive and negative space, present and absent bodies. John M Armleder, one of the artists who participated in the original show, created a work that places side-by-side a new painting of his and a Prouvé panel with porthole windows, drawing a parallel to the space between the readymade geometry and everyday found objects that he has explored throughout his career.

“David Malek” by Vincent Pécoil in Varia Exhibition Catalogue

David Malek is a painter whose preoccupations concern, very classically, questions of perspective, light and color.  His work blends contemporary scientific theories, the laws of perspective from the Renaissance or from the world of information technology, in the same way as the history of abstract painting and hypotheses from science-fiction, which function as the mythology of our time.  The result of these varied centers of interest is an ambiguous kind of abstract painting. In the first place because his compositions always evoke, without ever being a strict reproduction, different aspects of reality. And secondly, because “pure” abstraction seems impossible to him today.  For the sole reason that because it has been historicized, abstract painting has itself today become a repository of pre-existing images to which any composition inherently refers.  

That is why David Malek’s painting is mannerist, in the strong sense of the word.  His paintings are composed in the manner of abstract paintings (minimal or optical, most often), but are contaminated by its byproducts (the recuperation of abstraction in fields such as illustration, cinema, advertising, graphic design, etc.)

Born in 1977 in Springfield, Illinois, David Malek lives and works in Poitiers, France.  He has shown his works in the United States, France, Switzerland and Belgium. The FRAC Limousin recently acquired one of his paintings.  

RGB, NSP

15 Sept – 28 Oct 2017
Galerie Triple V

In the exhibition “RGB, NSP” at galerie Triple V in Paris, recent works by David Malek, Mathieu Mercier, Olivier Mosset, Hugo Pernet, Delphine Reist, Sylvain Rousseau and Blair Thurman are brought to light. Abstract canvases that create fascinating optical effects or that put into question the very essence of painting or even installations nourished by political and social considerations of the nature of the object.

The exhibiton “RGB, NSP” at the Parisian gallery Triple V brings together paintings, sculptures and installations by David Malek, Mathieu Mercier, Olivier Mosset, Hugo Pernet, Delphine Reist, Syvain Rousseau and Blair Thurman.

David Malek’s optical effects

David Malek’s paintings such as The Swimmer 2 (Door), produced in 2016 with satin enamel on canvas mounted on a door, form complex visual compositions. Often based on simple geometric forms and a limited color palette, these works generate striking optical effects through an extremely precise utilization of tones and half-tones, of light and shadow, of space, of materials and the repetition of forms. It is a body of work that makes David Malek one of the emerging figures of American abstraction.

Olivier Mosset’s pictorial abstraction

Abstraction is also at the heart of Olivier Mosset’s pictorial production. His recent works such as Untitled (Red), painted in 2014, inscribe themselves in a logic of deconstruction of painting which was begun as part of the group BMPT in 1967 and 1968 with Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni. A simple red circle on a white ground, this painting bears witness to the desire to reach the zero degree of painting in order to express its essence. If Olivier Mosset defines painting as “color applied to a canvas,” it is to signify that the truth of painting is on the canvas and that paintings are autonomous and material object stripped of all subjectivity and conceptualization.

The political and social considerations of Delphine Reist and Mathieu Mercier

The installation by Delphine Reist entitled Peinture IV consists of a band of vertical yellow paint on the wall under which is the roller and handle that applied it on the floor, which suggest a pictorial gesture that is the process of being made and which creates an ambiguity between artistic painting and utilitarian painting. This work inscribes itself in a process that is nourished by political reflection that questions architectural and artistic practice, their graphic codes and their social implications.

“David Malek”  by Mara Hoberman, Artforum vol 53 n°7, New York

PARIS

David Malek
TRIPLE V

Masquerading as pure abstractions, David Malek’s latest ensemble of bright and glossy acrylic paintings feature either single large shapes or allover geometric patterns.  Painted in electric shades of pink, blue, yellow, along with gray, black and silver, the eight canvases that were on view simultaneously channel the detached cool of 1980s neo-geo paintings and the meditative quality of ancient Indian tantric designs.  These apparent Minimalist and mystical connotations are complicated, however, by the fact that Malek’s titles connect each painting to a tangible, real-world subject. Using descriptive (albeit somewhat cryptically so) terms such as Scanner and The Swimmer (all works cited, 2014), Malek coaxes the view to associate circles, ovals and criss-cross patterns with people, places and things.  Resembling pared-down or zoomed-in versions of Peter Halley’s geometric Day-Glo landscapes and circuit boards, Malek’s paintings are even more radical distillations of quotidian objects and experiences.

According to the artist’s statement (which also served as the show’s press release), Mercure, a cornflower-blue grid painted over a bluish-silver background, represents a high-rise hotel near the artist’s home on the outskirts of Paris.  Paradoxically, by reducing his subject to just two hues and a pattern of perpendicular lines, Malek widens rather than narrows his frame of reference.  Lacking a sense of relative scale, the painting’s orderly composition of lines and rectangles could just as easily refer to the building’s glass and steel façade as to its tiled bathroom floors.  Inviting varied interpretations, the work supports a mercurial relationship between abstraction and representation and reveals unexpectedly elegant formal qualities of bland corporate architecture.  By contrast, Illinois Memory, a large square dominated by a magenta orb set against a gray background, was inspired by nature:  a sunset the artist saw more than a decade ago while driving in his home state. With this narrative clue, Malek’s Minimalist circle-in-square composition reveals itself as a dramatic landscape in which a radiant late-day sun hover over an asphalt road.

A masterful colorist in the tradition of Josef Albers, Malek mixes his paints carefully and makes calculated decisions about the placement of hues in order to create optical vibrations.  In Illinois Memory,  the area where the pink disk’s circumference meets the gray appears to quiver, strengthening the impression of glimmering sunlight passing through atmosphere.  Another illusion of light and motion appears in Scanner, in which a neon-green diamond pattern sheathes the entire canvas like protective chain-link fence.  The green lattice, also vibrantly set off against a silver background, evokes scintillating laser beams emitted by supermarket bar-code scanners.

The key to Malek’s flirtatious back-and-forth between abstraction and representation is given by the aptly named Black Mirror, a delicate oval outline in bright safety orange on a glossy black background.  The work’s title refers to an eighteenth-century optical device, also known as a Claude glass — a favorite tool of landscape painters.  The handheld convex mirror aided artists by reflecting a distorted image of reduced colors and simplified forms. In other words, the device abstracted reality into the picturesque.  Itself an extreme illustration of this practice, Black Mirror gives only a faint suggestion of the physical object it represents, but in doing so, underscores the real-world root of Malek’s geometric abstractions.

Artforum Critic’s Picks by Ian Wallace

David Malek
Martos Gallery
November 7–December 21, 2013

Each painting in David Malek’s latest exhibition is composed of enamel in two colors applied with either a roller or a brush.  These limitations in palette and texture echo familiar strategies of painting from the last century, but Malek also makes canny use of quasi-subliminal iconographic motifs culled from various ancient and contemporary sources.  Some of his paintings, which at first glance to be Op art-esque abstractions, use images directly from pop culture: Mainframe (all works 2013), for example, displays the artist’s penchant for sci-fi refulgence as it visually mimics a backdrop from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968).  The works’ titles act as touchstones for interpretation:  Blue Lozenge (Éric Rohmer) is an homage to the French filmmaker’s production company Les Films du losange (Lozenge Films) and straightforwardly appropriates its blue diamond-shaped logo.  Less obvious is the source of Perspective which was inspired by the schematic drawings for André Le Nôtre’s landscape architecture for Versailles and Chantilly and mimics their dramatic vanishing points and vibrant green hues, as if the work were seen from above.

Many of the artists whom Malek cites as influences, like Banett Newman and Peter Halley, were and are frequent contributors to written art discourse.  But rather than leaning on written theory or philosophy as a support for aesthetic formalism, Malek’s works take up the immediacy of their symbolic referents as visual phenomena, resulting in abstractions of what are already abstract forms.  This trick stems in part from Malek’s personal status as a recent émigé to Paris. Orbit, based partially on tantric drawings used for meditation, includes an ellipse shape that appears frequently in Parisian architecture, and Ra, which references the venerated sun disk of ancient Egyptian theology, was also partially inspired by the city’s famous, unique light.  These paintings are the direct result of the artist, with the eyes of a cultural novice, training his gaze not just on the surrounding landscape, but also on our entire iconographic vocabulary.  To paraphrase Marcel Proust, to whom Malek perhaps owes a debt of gratitude for his understanding of the subliminal power aesthetic symbols: The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to behold the universe through another’s eyes.

“Back to the Future” by Judicaël Lavrador, Les InRockuptibles, n°895, Paris, 2013.

A remake of an exhibition from 1983, Science-Fiction #3 is stunning in its arrangement and the simplicity of its proposal.

At the movies, this would be a remake, in musique it would be a cover.  In art, there isn’t really a word for this. Science-Fiction #3 is the third episode, or the second adaption, of an exhibition whose original version was in 1983 in New York.  The artist Peter Halley organized it and notably showed works by Jeff Koons, by Donald Judd or by the abstract painter Ross Bleckner.  The idea was simple: the historical avant-gardes had turned toward the future and idealized it. But at the end of the day, the future has not upheld its promise.  And so now contemporary artists backpedal, and revisit utopias with either derision or with delight, but no longer believe in them. In 1989, Le Consortium, the art center in Dijon, remade the exhibition with the same artists, but not the same pieces.  And it is this franchise, in a way, that Vincent Pécoil, the director of the Galerie Triple V returns to for himself to make this third opus. If the artists are no longer the same, the discourse remains today just as pertinent, because art continues to cultivate a certain nostalgia for the future and offers what the art historian Arnauld Pierre calls retrofuturism:  forms that are futuristic, but obsolete. For example, in the 3rd exhibition, the painting by David Malek which presents a lozenge form in a gradation of gloss fuchsia pink: a dazzling motif that functions like the opening to a SF series, in which the large psychedelically drawn violet neon by Blair Thurman is reflected. The sculpture by James Angus, a black ball bristling with girders evokes a kind of Sputnik, and the photo of a galaxy by Matthew McCaslin is covered by rows of pink chewing-gum, making a kind of battle scene among the stars.  The future is there just as one imagined it, just as one dreamed of it during childhood. It’s a future that is deliciously regressive.

Now, this exhibition does not spare its special effects.  To begin with this one: it takes place on a black ground.  The entire gallery has been repainted to conform with what Peter Halley had chosen for the original version and the colorful artworks burn with a thousand fires.  But there was an even more crucial reasoning behind this scenography — a radical manner to criticize the “white cube”, the temple of contemporary art. “Artworks seen in such spaces, wrote Peter Halley, seem to go through a kind of aesthetic convalescence.  They are seen like so many lifeless invalids, waiting for the verdict of critics on their curability or incurability.” The black walls also mourned the death of conceptual art at that time, that dream of a dematerialized art, consisting of ideas to hold in one’s mind rather than objects to conserve:  “Today, the american artist thus added, art is once again entrenched in the gallery, the museum and the city; but it cannot reside in these places with the same innocent complacently as before.” The merit of Science-Fiction #3 is to update a fact that remains just as striking.  But even more than deploying a follow-up to an old exhibition, in the manner of a Bob Nickas who has also delivered numerous remakes, Vincent Pécoil does not seek originality.  He seeks to make it simple. A concept that would do well to inspire many curators, who, seeking to make a name for themselves, impose upon us exhibitions with empty concepts that are pretentious, incomprehensible and already out-of-date.

“Sensual Abstraction” by Judicaël Lavrador, Beaux-Arts Magazine n°345, March 2013, Paris.

David Malek’s paintings sustain all the contradictions of contemporary abstract painting: they are abstract, without really being abstract.  The avant-gardes of the beginning of the 20th century, the Mondrians, the Malevitch’s and their associates, advanced by means of suprematist or neo-plastic compositions on virgin ground.  Now, a century later, abstraction has a history, a dense repertoire. And the paintings of this young american installed in Paris necessarily recall to those of his elders. To which however he adds another dimension since abstractions forms, colors and amazing optical effects have been appropriated, as early as the 1960’s, by the culture industry.  Science-fiction movies or thrillers, pop music videos, brainwashing advertisements, hip magazines, overexcited fashion have indeed voraciously absorbed the dynamic motifs of abstract painting. The whole world, or at least our entire imagination has been saturated with it. It is this abstraction, an abstraction by the square or by the cube which is very palpable and very real, very evocative and very illustrative that David Malek paints.

That is why David Malek’s painting is mannerist, in the strong sense of the word.  His paintings are composed in the manner of abstract paintings (minimal or optical, most often), but are contaminated by its byproducts (the recuperation of abstraction in fields such as illustration, cinema, advertising, graphic design, etc.)

Born in 1977 in Springfield, Illinois, David Malek lives and works in Poitiers, France.  He has shown his works in the United States, France, Switzerland and Belgium. The FRAC Limousin recently acquired one of his paintings.

Painting Abstraction:  New Elements in Abstract Painting.  By Bob Nickas
2009, Phaidon publishers, London

David Malek

Science, mathematics, literature, astronomy, an investigation into the intensities of color and light, as well as art historical referents near and far, all figure in the art of David Malek.  In of the the handful representational paintings the artist has ever made, The Gay Science (2006), he depict the cover of Friedrich Nietzche’s book, which argues for a synthesis of science and art, a proposition that Malek’s paintings exlpore in repeated, ongoing experiments.  It’s not unusual for Malek, like a lab researcher, to run his “experiments” over and over, factoring in new data, previous results and further speculation. He has made, to date, two versions of the “shimmering wave,” two the “dark star” and a pair of “moon” paintings; three “octahedrons,” three “zero” paintings and no less than four “superblast” pictures.  In each case, the new versions are superior to the ones that came before, and there is no way of knowing whether others will follow. One senses that Malek is always aiming to perfect the process without closing down options, that a finished painting occasions neither a completed idea nor an inevitable conclusion. The repetition in his work suggests that he is visually, and in terms of his curiosity, a phenomenological artist.  His painting Mazzocchio (2007) takes as its source Paulo Uccello’s perspectival of a disk in three-dimensional space.  Uccello applied scientific methods to the study of perspective and vanishing points, which were central to the mapping of spatial relations within his paintings.  Malek’s version places the disk within an electric orange field that glows and vibrates from the center outward. The disk seemingly hovers between the fifteenth century and the present, between the Battle of San Romano (c. 1450) and the cooling tank of a nuclear reactor.  With Poincaré (2006), based on the Poincaré conjecture, a math problem that attempts to predict the shape of the universe, Malek overlays spherical orange and white grid on a blue concentric field, creating an all-seeing geometric “eye.”  Yet another model, that of the C6H6 benzene ring, referring to a key chemical in the production of opium, serves as the basis for the icon/logotype in Suspiria de Profundis (2008), whose title comes from the second volume of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  Malek translates the visionary/emotional experience of De Quincey and the unconscious into rational, albeit chromatically psychedelic, geometry.

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Malek’s paintings often orient themselves on a central focus, with expanding grids, radiating bands and spoke, and close gradations of color and light.  He works in enamel on wood, a support that enables him to subtly incise the surface, accentuating the progression light to dark with inward/outward concentric “ripples” and exploiting color-on-color vibrational effects.  Optically, many of his images have an object-like presence. The large X in White Diamond (2008) reads as three-dimensional, its repeating facets seemingly receding into space.  Magister Ludi (2008) has at its center a bright white orb with sixteen points emanating outward to the edges, or possibly directed from the outer edges inward.  The background, an ominous blue gray, is both behind and subtly merged with the starburst, suggesting that illumination is always only visible in contrast to that which remains in darkness.  The painting refers to Herman Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game.  Published in 1943, the book is set in the twenty-fifth century, its story told through the title protagonist, Magister Ludi — in lating “master of the game.”  The narrator, after joining an order that is devoted to intellectual inquiry but remains oblivious to the troubles of the outside world, and having mastered the game, rejects the idea of a search for knowledge that is disconnected from the trials of tribulations of the everyday.  From our vantage point, the insularity of the order can be seen to parallel the alienation that the Internet fosters; conversely, it also offers the potential for endless information. Malek’s painting appears poised between enlightenment and doubt. Are we moving toward or, like the books protagonist, away from the light?  And is the painting’s center a locus of “pure knowledge” or a void zone, a point into which we vanish? Similar structures in Malek’s work, for example those in the “superblast” and “dark star” painting, represent abstract/unknowable events or phenomena such as the Big Bang or black holes — the creation or potential demise of the universe.  His work plays off a future/past axis that, for the viewer standing in front of one of his glowing supernatural images, is an experience in which one is physically present. The brilliant orange forms in Mirrored Octahedron (2008), set against a deep black ground, are phosphorescent, pulsing with color and light as if they contained internal, molten sources of heat.  Red Giant (for Ivan Kliun) (2007) radiates a similar visual energy.  Kliun, a contemporary of Suprematist and Constructivist artists such as Malevich, Tatlin and Popova, painted the shimmering Red Light, Spherical Composition in 1923.  More than eighty years later, Malek pays tribute to the lesser-known figure, intensifying his highly magnified ball of light, as if staring directly into the sun.

Castello da costruire nella foresta (2007), another homage to an artistic  predecessor, while anomalous in Malek’s overall body of work, still resonates with his larger project.  The image is appropriated from a modes work on made by Paul Klee in 1926 Schloss im Wald zu bauen (Castle to Be Built in the Forest).  (Because the book in which he found it was in Italian, Malek kept the title as translated).  While Malek’s paintings are notable for their charged color, the reproduction was black-and-white, and so his version is rendered in grisaille, in tones of black, gray, and white, amplifying the graphic quality of the original.  What’s common to Malek’s paintings and this work of Klee are concentric bands and color scales, but Malek’s images a centered focal point, while Klee’s picture contains myriad focal points: the castle is seen from an overhead rather than a frontal point of view.  “The central structure of Klee’s picture,” Malek says, “is a kind of concentric rectangle. This structure shares a similarity with Stella’s Black Paintings, and the picture forms an interesting historical bridge between Klee’s modernism, Stella’s late-modernism and my own postmodern practice.” Malek’s “castle” — the double to Klee’s — reverberates, as does his Mazzocchio in particular and his work in general, visually and temporally, offering a perceptual event for the viewer that is always active, never quiescent, and attuned to one’s perception.

The Diagonal of the Void

La Salle de Bain Art Center, Lyon France

A well-known concept in French sociology, “The Diagonal of the Void” designates a zone with low population density that stretches across France from the Ardennes to the Landes.  In time, this expression has become charged with its own mythology and fantasies about the countryside and its desertification. What exists in the center of France? Is this diagonal truly empty?  Is there such a thing as a neutral landscape?  

“The Diagonal of the Void” is foremost an exhibition in relationship to the cinema of Éric Rohmer.  In the manner of 17th century moral philosophers such as Labruyère or La Rochefoucauld, this filmmaker was a very keen observer of the mores of his time and of their expression in language.  

But from the Classical century, he also inherited the arcadian sensibility of La Fontaine and the geometric eye of Pascal and he tirelessly filmed the French landscape in its various archetypes:  Paris, provincial cities, beaches in Brittany visited by bourgeois vacationers or even the deserted villages of the diagonal of the void.

He evoked the Drôme and the valley of the Rhône in this way, as a site of exchange and above all as a territory having a lozenge shape (and this is a case of word-play on the name of his production company founded in 1962 with Barbet Schroeder, les Films du Losange).

In addition, “the diagonal of the void” has long served to designate a zone of low population density that stretches across France from the Ardennes to the Landes.  It resonates with the history of the entire French landscape, from the process of extreme centralization to that of progressive and hesitant decentralization and the incessant rivalry between Paris and the rest of France.  

This expression belongs first and foremost to the language of political and administrative action:  the repopulation of this axis has long been a priority in the social debate.  

We can also understand it differently.  The diagonal is a kind of line; between the horizontal and the vertical.  Thus in Point, Line and Plane, his grammar of forms, Kandinsky evokes the perceptual effect of the diagonal in a pictorial composition.  It is more or less warm or cold according to its inclination. What then is the place of abstraction in the administrative conception of a territory?  Is it a political tool in the same way as statistics?

The exhibition brings together artworks that for the most part were produced specifically for the exhibition.  Some of the artists incessantly criss-cross this diagonal (Éric Tabuchi, Justin Meekel).  Others have imagined ritual practices for this territory (Pierre Vadi, Andreas Dobler).  Others finally have borrowed from it various abstract forms (David Malek, Andaud Vérin, Simon Boudvin).  Jill Gasparina and Caroline Soyez-Petithomme are the exhibition’s curators.