Elyse Mallouk Has a Way with Words . . . and Art

Elyse Mallouk, "Always On My Mind," 2010 (photo by Alex Greenburg)

Finding a balance between two passions can be challenging, but Elyse Mallouk (MFA 2010, MA in Visual and Critical Studies 2010) built her dual loves into her CCA education. Midway through her first year as an MFA student, she decided to enroll in the dual-degree program with Visual and Critical Studies. Having previously thought of herself as an artist with an interest in writing, she began developing a deeper balance between writing and art.

Sounds simple in theory, maybe, but in practice it was not without its challenges.

"In the short term, the required readings for Visual and Critical Studies made it difficult for me to find time to make art," she recalls. "The second year of the three-year program was particularly challenging. I was being introduced to a huge amount of critical theory while trying to produce a cohesive body of artwork for the MFA show. The readings complicated the way I was thinking about what I was making."

She explored some of this confusion and challenge through her VCS thesis, which questioned the lines being drawn by influential texts and institutions around social engagement in art. "My thesis argued that social engagement cannot be reduced to a set of inherent characteristics possessed by artworks. It is not a category for sorting them, but a set of circumstances and relationships that cannot be assessed without considering a project's public. I used the aesthetic philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Jacques Ranciere to present the idea that artworks are proposals and opportunities for aesthetic experiences, which are always both subjective and social. It aimed to disrupt the expectation that social engagement in art looks and involves a public in a certain way, and sought to open up the discourse to include a broader range of practices.

"At a CCA grad lecture I attended, the poet Eileen Myles said that art is the possibility of connection. For my most recent show at Triple Base Gallery I took this statement as a working premise, and examined some of the still-unresolved questions brought up by my thesis work: What constitutes invitation in art? What does it look like for an artwork, a song, or a text to really consider a public? The project was called Notes for an Open Score. It took pop love songs and romance novels -- ubiquitous ways of expressing connection -- and reduced them to their most basic elements: words, rhythm, tempo, intonation. I was investigating these two popular forms by making them more difficult -- translating melodies into puzzles that had to be decoded.

"The disciplines of writing and art require different kinds of attention and thought, but they're both ways of working with and through ideas. Jens Hoffmann's recent exhibitions at the CCA Wattis Institute (Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, and The Wizard of Oz) employed this concept pragmatically, grappling with seminal American literature by inviting artists to produce work in conversation with the novels. These exhibitions proposed that writing and art making are already bound up together: both are engaged in the production of histories and counter-histories. The exhibition becomes a third narrative that pulls at the connective threads between the novel, historical artifacts, films, and contemporary artworks. Reading, viewing, and making are shown to be aspects of the same activity.

"For the Huckleberry Finn catalog, I wrote and edited some short statements about the artists and the works. At the same time, I was developing Notes for an Open Score, a show for Triple Base Gallery in San Francisco, and the structure of Huckleberry Finn shaped the way I was thinking about my own work. I used a color-coding system to put the pieces in conversation with each other. Tom Comitta (MFA Writing 2011) and Joyce Grimm (codirector of Triple Base and CCA Curatorial Practice alumna) curated 'Sunday is for Lovers,' a programming series that included live music, poetry readings, and karaoke. These events were really exciting. When they occupied the gallery space they became a part of the exhibition, creating new entry points and changing the way the exhibition read."

Since she graduated last year, Mallouk has been taking on projects that tread the line between material and written investigations: writing projects that are artworks, and artworks that are heavily text-driven. She is currently working on a three-part project called Landfill with CCA Fine Arts chair Ted Purves. This project aims to generate a nonlinear history of contemporary socially engaged projects through an archive, a journal, and a subscription service.

"There are no predefined standards for what the materials might be, what the projects themselves look like, or what kind of participation they solicit, if any. Many of these projects navigate a space between object and event-based practice, and some are largely dematerialized, but they all produce leftovers: promotional materials, postcards, invitations, props, posters, and writings. Our method is to take these byproducts, use them as tools for discussing the projects they came from, and then redistribute them.

"A searchable online archive that includes scanned images of the materials and short descriptions of the projects for which they were originally made is slated to launch mid-February. The first issue of Landfill Quarterly will be sent to subscribers shortly thereafter, and will contain selected material ephemera and a printed journal contextualizing the objects inside. We’re in the process of putting together our first issue, and are accepting submissions of leftover materials to be archived, written about, and redistributed at www.thelandfill.org."

In conjunction with this project, Mallouk is writing a four-part feature series for Art Practical. The first feature, "Issue Zero" is available now. The second will be published on February 10, 2011.