Last December, the director of L.A.’s Box Gallery contacted me about the conservation of some 1950s and 60s pieces by Robert Mallary (1917-1997). The pieces consisted largely of old tuxedos dipped in resin and sculptures made of polyester, sand and dirt. For an Art Nurse like myself, nothing is more exciting than a chance to work on detritus-as-art, and these works — made by a pioneer in the field of assemblage and use of resin — would provide me with a rich opportunity to experiment with the conservation of new materials, not to mention chew over the limits between junk and art.
Crafted out of wood, dirt, sand, rusted steel, cardboard, tar paper and fabric that has been crushed, bent, twisted, and dipped in a resin of questionable formulation, these sculptures had once been seen in landmark avant-garde exhibitions such as MoMA’s Sixteen Americans (1959) and Art of Assemblage (1961). More recently, they had languished in a near-junk heap in the building that had once served as Mallary’s studio in Conway, Massachusetts. They might have never been seen or heard from again if artist Paul McCarthy, long an admirer of Mallary’s work, hadn’t included some of them in the show Low Life, Slow Life at the San Francisco Wattis Institute in 2008.
“As soon as we saw this work we knew something bigger had to be done,” says Box Gallery director Mara McCarthy (who also happens to be Paul’s daughter). So the gallery’s team made three separate trips to Massachusetts and carefully sorted through the heaps in Mallary’s studio. After receiving the Art Nurse treatment, eighteen of these sculptures will go on exhibit this Saturday. Working on them wasn’t easy. Mallary’s pieces aren’t just fragile; they’re each made up of what seems to be a million different materials – one corner might be all fabric and resin, another dirt and old newspaper. And because every material adheres differently and every adhesive used in conservation has the potential to stain the very thing you’re gluing, every single repair required a separate decision. By the end of the week when the work was done (which incidentally was also the week that L.A. was pummeled by rain, which meant that everything took twice as long to dry) my brain felt as torqued as one of Mallary’s tuxedo pieces.
But it was clearly worth it. In today’s art world, we’ve gotten so used to pieces made of weird materials that junk art seems as common as canvas painting. But Mallary’s sculptures have a raw power that defies description. This is shockingly good work – that has not been seen in nearly four decades. So if you’re going to be anywhere near L.A. over the next couple of months, get yourself over to The Box to see them. Mara McCarthy, in fact, believes that the proper resting place for these pieces would be a museum. After spending 60 hours staring and handling these works, I’d have to heartily agree.
A special thanks to the folks at the gallery for allowing us to document this process. See many more photos after the jump. Robert Mallary opens at the Box Gallery in Chinatown this Sat, Feb. 6 at 6pm and is on display until April 3, 2010.