An artist who makes a point of working outdoors, Tommy Malekoff favors field trips over studio visits. Departing from divine
landscapes and monumental objects, he shifts the focus on shopping malls and parking lots—a celebration of the mundane,
as he discusses with legendary architect James Wines, exploring nature’s revenge with a Gothic undertone.
JAMES WINESMy profession has always involved an awful
lot of information gathering and teams of people. I’m always
dealing with documents and large models, things that are
really cumbersome at this time in my life. Practically all of
my ideas start inside and end up outside, whereas you start
outside and end up inside.
TOMMY MALEKOFFI feel the most focused when I’m
outdoors. I’m addicted to that feeling of stimulation you get when you physically confront something
you’ve been researching online, or when you happen
upon some sort of divine landscape or monumental
object due to circumstance of wandering. Sometimes I envy artists that can be indoors all day and
make objects in their studio, but ultimately everything I’m interested in already exists outside somewhere. When people ask to see my studio, I have to
tell them I don’t have one. We often go on a bike ride
or some kind of field trip mission instead.
JWIn your case, you’re much more like a writer or an
author. You can work in a single room with a couple books
and make sense of your experience out in the world.
TMI’ve never thought about it like that, but a lot of
my favorite artists are writers. I grew up reading
mostly Southern Gothic literature, and I think that had
a huge impact on what I’m attracted to visually.
JWYou grew up in North or South Carolina?
TMI moved so many times as a kid, but primarily
Greensboro, North Carolina. In a way, it was the
perfect place to experience adolescence, because
the demographic and landscape is very balanced.
You’re in a medium-sized city, so you have this relationship to large buildings and shopping malls, but
you’re also very much in tune with nature. And you’re
in the American South, which has its implications,
but you’re surrounded by universities and all these
research centers for technology and agriculture.
JWNorth Carolina is the setting for Perennial Shadows
(2017), your video about kudzu. This plant has a wonderful
duality to it, which makes for nice discourse.
TMYes, definitely. It’s lush and beautiful and infinitely photographic, but also totally destructive.
Kudzu thrives in the South, but it isn’t even native to the United States. It was brought to America from Japan at the World’s Fair in 1876 as a porch decoration, and today it totally consumes the landscape. It covers buildings and parking lots, destroys power
lines, and kills all other plant life around it.
JWI think of these instances as “nature’s revenge.”
TMYes! It’s like the plant has overcome displacement and transformed into a villain. Going back to
Southern Gothic literature, kudzu was often written
about in fiction as this vine that would eventually
cover the world, creeping into people’s windows at
night and whatnot. I wanted to convey this in
Perennial Shadows by using long, meditative shots
of kudzu resting on top of manmade structures,
simultaneously showing very little human presence.
JWIt seems like your video Desire Lines (2019), which
focuses on parking lots, is the opposite exploration. Instead
of nature revolting, you’re examining man’s traces in nature.
TMRight, and that is what the title refers to—disruption of land created by human or animal foot traffic.
JWLike kudzu, the strip mall setting is ubiquitous in the landscape, but it’s certainly much less exotic. It’s a universally accepted part of everyone’s collective unconscious, but some people subliminally identify with these
environments. Your video demonstrates a whole range
of interpretations of that.
TMI was interested in how different social groups make use of this vast public space. Before I started working on Desire Lines, I was collecting all this
reference video material of people dancing, fighting,
doing burnouts in cars, and so on. Most of what I was looking at took place outside, specifically in
parking lots, so the idea came naturally from there.
Initially, I thought the video would be a collection
of vignettes, like five staged “acts” or performances.
When I went to go document that stuff, I would
always come back with way more material than I set
out for, so the finished product ended up being less
about one action over the other and more about
an environment in general.
JWIs that how you ended up with the two screens?
TM Exactly. The two screens constantly in discourse with one another creates an atmosphere instead of a story. It draws parallels between things that are otherwise unrelated, and blurs the lineof staged versus candid. The video exists on a seamless loop—there is actually no beginning, middle or end. There is this sense of an infinite landscape with constant movement.
JWThere’s also the use of sound.
TMI worked closely with my friend Joe Williams
on the sound, which is very important to the
video. It’s composed entirely of field recordings and
on-camera audio layered on top of each other, and some of that actually becomes musical. He took
these samples of semi-trailer truck horns and looped them really fast, so it sounds like an
amplified pulse or heartbeat during the scene with
the balloon rosary going into the sky.
JWPicasso said, “You don’t make art out of the
Parthenon, you make art out of the debris at your feet,”
and it’s so true—you have to look where other people
don’t look. The highest compliment I’ve ever received is
when a man saw one of the BEST big-box stores that
I designed in Houston, Texas, and he told me, “You know,
I’ve never really thought about buildings before.” I was
successful in jogging him out of the complacency of just
walking by buildings.
TMRight! Wow, that’s like the ultimate goal of
making art. But yeah, it’s a celebration of the
mundane. With Desire Lines, I wanted to bring life
to what you’ve referred to as the “hostile slab.”
JWI’ve always been interested in this phenomenon of
the shopping mall and its paved surroundings. I mean,
asphalt is a petroleum product, so you end up with petroleum operations on top of petroleum. It goes to show
our dependency on that resource.
TMWith certain aspects of that video, I was
communicating the idea of nature adapting to the
presence of asphalt. That is why it was important
for me to include animals like the iguanas and the wild
horses. In some of the shots, you can even see
grass growing back through cracks in the ground.
Maybe one day, all parking lots will be useless and abandoned as a result of self-driving cars and
JWYour show in Los Angeles also had these silkscreen
images of empty parking lots at night. Are those related
to Desire Lines?
TMThey are, but I think of them as the antidote to the video. Desire Lines is consumed with people
and action, whereas these are more meditative
studies of the same spaces. Sometimes I would revisit
a location from the video and photograph it at night,
void of humans or cars. Those golden orange street
lights have such a theatrical effect—it reminds me of a stage before the curtains open. There is an
overwhelming sense of spirituality you get from that glow, like a permanent “golden hour,” which is
why I titled them “Night Suns.” Showing those
images with the video illustrates the double life
these places lead.
JWIn addition to being an extension of what you’re
thinking about, they also communicate a refined visual
sensibility. You know, at this stage in my life, I realize that my practice is sort of condemned to illustration. I’m much more interested in seeing things that capture the
mood and the attitude of an environment—a pure aesthetic experience. I’ve archived thousands of drawings
relative to architecture, and nearly all of them are just
exact renderings of the object.
TMThat’s the power of
video as a medium, or at least
editing. You have direct
evidence of all this stuff that
really exists out there, and
you can show it to people in
a way they’ve never seen
it before. So many things are
much more surreal than they appear.
JWLike these storm videos
you were showing me—what led
you to that? There’s not much
of a duality to tornadoes: they’re
only destructive and everyone’s
afraid of them.
TM(laughing) That was
more of a project in collabo-
ration with the music group
SALEM. I was always curious
about the life storm chasers
choose, what draws them to constantly put their lives in
the hands of extreme weather.
Jack [Donoghue] from the
band wanted to make a video
with storms to accompany
their music, but it was really
important to him that we got original footage with them in it. It seemed like a
to go film some of that stuff.
JWYou’re still young, and it’s important to explore a wide range of subject matters early on in your career,
before everything is put on a timeline and examined.
What will you do next?
TMI’m working on a new video project in Florida
that I’m still sort of figuring out. It has a lot to do
with the elements, like fire, wind, and water. There
are no humans in it so far. I want it to be really
aggressive visually, but we’ll see. Other than that,
I am preparing for a show in the fall. I’ve started
working on some sculptural things for that.
JWYou’re only at the beginning. Just make sure you
aren’t plagued with any labels. You don’t want to be
referred to as the “parking lot guy.” Take it from someone
who was the “ghost parking lot guy.”