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The Artist's Life

Tierney Malone turns a few of his favorite things into dramatic graphic images

Before he embarks upon an installation, Tierney Malone watches Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, the documentary about the chaotic and fiasco-laden making of Apocalypse Now. He loves the scene in which Coppola declares failure, doubting anything and everything he's done. To see the anguish, the temporary loss of nerve that every creative person faces (even one in the thrall of directing a masterful film), is oddly reassuring to Malone. In fact, the artistic process and the lives of creative people inspire and inform his own art.

Malone is particularly fascinated by the lives of jazz greats -- "unconventional souls," he calls them -- who persevered in spite of the tremendous obstacles they faced, both as artists and as African-Americans. He says he knew the stories of jazz artists even before he knew their music. Malone's installation, "My Favorite Things and Other Rent Party Songs," on view at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery, brings together the iconography of old jazz albums and the artist's own world in an epic collage.

Walking into the upstairs gallery is like being inside Malone's head as he zooms in on meaningful fragments of his life, cropping a word or a name or a picture down to its very essence, as blocks of colors and letters collide and obscure each other. The compositions form dramatic graphic images that are painted directly on the walls. The trademark black and orange of cover art from the jazz label Impulse dominates the space. Jazz names like Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk mingle with the names of Houston art figures like Michelle Barnes, David McGee and Bert Samples. "Houston is my New York," Malone has written in a drawing tacked to the wall. "Third Ward is my Harlem."

Tierney Malone created a similar installation, Modern Day Jazz Stories, last year at Robert McClain & Co.
Tierney Malone created a similar installation, Modern Day Jazz Stories, last year at Robert McClain & Co.

There is a desire in Malone's work to share with people. It's like the impulse you have when you discover something funny or wonderful or interesting: Hey, did you read/hear/see this? A densely packed pinup collage near the back of the gallery presents a kind of storyboard for his installation. Among the reference materials, ideas and artifacts: Richard Pryor, Earth Wind & Fire and Sonny Rollins album covers, Modigliani nudes, fortune cookie fortunes, a cover torn from a Godfather paperback, a Krispy Kreme doughnut hat and a photograph of Malone and his children.

Malone's art is cinematic in its creation of whole environments. And to create an all-encompassing work, he's got to have a crew. For the Blaffer show, Malone spent two and a half weeks working with six different artists (two or three at a time) to execute the wall paintings, all of which will disappear forever after December 21. There is something idealistic yet slightly masochistic about creating large site-specific works that will live on only in photographs. But the fleeting quality of the installation is important. Viewers know that this show is the only show that will ever be exactly like this, in the same way an audience at a live concert knows that the experience is unique.

Malone has titled many of his works, his shows and himself "Sign Painter for Hire." It's a straightforward and egalitarian designation, but the text in this boldly colored environment is anything but slick and commercial. The letters are accurate, but there is a painterliness in the way a black background shows through the strokes of a red letter, creating a patina of age. And there is expressiveness in the way the cracked and chalky feel of tempera is juxtaposed with the smoothness of a gloss latex. "Sign Painter for Hire" is ironic for Malone, but it also functions as a kind of internal justification. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he saw sign painters as the only examples of how he could use his creative talent to make a living. "The last thing I wanted to be was a sign painter," says Malone. But as an adult artist, he uses the term to conceive of himself in a conventionally productive way, as a kind of validation for his creative career. American, and particularly Southern, popular culture doesn't consider art to be a "real" occupation -- a hobby to amaze friends and neighbors maybe, but a full-time job for a grown man?

Near the exhibition exit, the word "blessed" is painted in simple white typeface on a black wall. The mural has a spare sincerity to it, something risky in an era when cynicism is far more hip. But jadedness springs from overprivilege, and Malone knows how easily things could have been different; other talented members of his family were unable to pursue their dreams. For him, the life of an artist is a blessing in itself.

 
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