Storytellers: Sara Malpass

We first encountered Sara Malpass’ work at NIAD in her solo exhibition What Are Words For, and have included her work in our latest curatorial project Storytellers, currently on view at LAND in Brooklyn. Selections by Malpass are featured in this exhibition in order to highlight the important perspective she offers in the discussion of narrative. Her works, particularly the daily lists on notebook paper, isolate an exploration of written language in visual art that is uncommon in that of mainstream contemporary artists, but prominent in the works of so-called outsiders. Malpass’ reductive, pragmatic language most often culls words from her current reading material or immediate interests, her piles of lists culminating as a living personal archive central to her prolific creative practice. 

These are uses of written language, not as an appropriation of typography aesthetics, but for the utility of expressing ideas - handwritten text that affords a presence to language as mark-making as well as its hermetic, phonetic, and conceptual function, as is also the case in the works of Carlo Daleo, Kenya Hanley, and William Tyler, who pair it with imagery.

Currently, text in this form is already used more by mainstream artists than ever before, notably in the works of Deb Sokolow, Raymond Pettibon, or Dan Attoe. They owe this precedent largely to artists like Malpass throughout history - Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger, and Gayleen Aiken, among many others. Malpass illustrates that this is not just an oddity, novelty, or merely a more simplistic or didactic activity than the contemporary mainstream engagement of text. Rather, it can be understood as much broader practice, which has been overlooked.

Read in sequential order, her ink on paper works transcend a mundane list of words and become hermetic poetry; the sound, form, and meanings of the text have an undeniable aesthetic identity. In her lists there are recurring qualities, mysterious phrases such as “castle work” and “circle work”, the complex phonetics of “payment check”, or densely packed syllables of “ordinary” and “television”. Malpass’ evocative cadence is reminiscent of the listing that occurs within Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread” and ”Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary.” The reader follows along a deliberate path that feels both intuitive and intentional. Rationalizing her process, one wonders if she is considering certain concepts such as long and short syllable pairings “inside”, “on stage”, “up date”; or collecting particular kinds of articulatory forms “reasons”...“bookish”.

These lists aren't explicitly devised or executed as poems, but rather as singular objects, composed of the diligent cursive script of a writer who, as is declared in the piece above loves “ write letters” and “ write words”. Making this distinction could seem like splitting hairs, but is absolute and highly consequential - drawn in an aesthetic largely informed by principles and practice of penmanship, but implementing visual elements as drawing that are inextricable. Confronting, owning, or living with a Sara Malpass list establishes a relationship with a singular art object conceived with no known further intention or publication.

Malpass (b. 1967) is based in the Bay Area and has maintained a studio practice at NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California for many years. Selected exhibitions include Sara Malpass (2017), Never Shout Never organized by Jeffrey Cortland Jones (2015), What Are Words For (2014), Serenade: Lists, Poems and Missives (2013) and A Light That Never Goes Out: Continuing Traditions in Abstraction (2013), all at NIAD.