Graffiti dance and found memorabilia.
Max Mallender is a Liverpool based painter and sculptor whose work is primarily centred around urban exploration and found objects. Mallender first approached art through the public practice of graffiti and skateboarding. From as early as thirteen years old, the artist has found inspiration from the streets for which he’s developed a strong sense of belonging. These explorative adventures of his childhood cultivated a deep interest in the surrounding space and how it influences our views of the world. After intervening in abandoned or enclosed sites, Mallender began maturing an interest in documenting his temporary work through the photographic medium. This led him to enrol in a Photography degree at Kingston University, but the rather stiff academic environment he found himself in little matched his unbounded attitude. Having dropped out of the course within his first year, the artist pursued a more comprehensive involvement for open air work by creating installations that involved repurposing objects such as construction materials, industrial paint or plastic sheets. His work further expanded when the opportunity of moving into a dedicated studio arose. In this fixed setting, the artist began painting on more traditional surfaces like canvases, without however losing his spontaneous style. Mallender’s creative initiative is not bound by preconceived ideas or set schemes, but rather leaves plenty of space for his intuitions to gush out. Line and movement are recurring findings within his production, accompanied by a genuine use of colours and forms. Re-contextualising everyday objects is for the artist a way to appreciate their aesthetic value beyond their function. After a long time spent away from the outdoor spaces he was used to, Mallender is experimenting with more ambitious, large-scale work that directly involves the viewers to respond with playful or unexpected solutions.
When you were just twelve years old you started making graffiti. In what ways did your background in illegal creativity teach you to see and how have these early readings of location, material and space connected your practice to the urban settings they are often found in?
I was totally hooked by graffiti as soon as it entered my life thanks to Matty Jones, a good friend who introduced it to me in year seven history class. All of my creative endeavours have graffiti as the catalyst. The combination of that with skateboarding particularly influenced my viewing of the world, enabling me to attribute a dual purpose to everything; can it be skated, can it be painted on? Everything sort of became more interesting and I had some hand in my environment. That is one of the reasons why graffiti can be so addictive. Also, the fact that even at thirteen years old you, as an individual, can have a verifiable impact upon the world. I attribute my ability to seeing and finding new ways of reading the landscape to it. I analyse what other people have done, what they should have done – like ‘oh their S is too big’, or ‘how can I use that scaffolding to get up there?’ and so on.
Your analogue documentation of your graffiti tags drove you to enrol on a Photography course at Kingston University, London. Did studying revise your approach to creating and capturing art? What led you to drop out after the first year?
In a way, I had a good time at uni and I really enjoyed how the crits pushed me to value artistic dialogue, which I still find interesting. While I was there, I met my good friend Joshua Bareham, with whom I collaborated a lot on various projects. Josh and I had a great connection and I am grateful to him for introducing a certain playfulness that is still relevant in my practice. However, I find the whole university structure and the way they make a creative course feel so academic very tedious. I felt very much like I had to jump through hoops and do very arbitrary tasks. What I was making was good and interesting, but the ideas I had needed to be filtered through a specific way of operating, which I didn’t relate to or consider very useful. Maybe in hindsight, I should have swapped to Fine Art, and it could have probably been more liberating. Instead, I dropped out and went on a trip to Cambodia which ended up being a bit of a six years experiment in business and hedonism.
In order to take photographs for your degree, you would often sneak into abandoned sites and intervene with them, at one point forming an installation of balloons that were released and caught on camera. Did you find that these encounters placed a priority on the action rather than the developed image?
Yes definitely, that is probably why I should have swapped the courses. At college, I was already doing similar installations, but because the end product was a photograph, I mistakenly confused it with the artwork, which rather was the action itself. The time you mentioned was really fun. Josh and I managed to break into an abandoned theatre, via a very small window with three removable glass slats that allowed us access without anyone ever knowing we had been in there. Inside the theatre, we found some construction equipment including a little generator that could light up the whole place through construction lighting when turned on. We bought a small helium canister and 1000 balloons, took everything inside, tied the inflated balloons to the upper-tier bannister and photographed the scene. Once finished, we removed the balloons and went up onto the roof to release them and left the place the same way we came in, no one ever knew we had been there. I remember feeling excited about creating a situation no one else has or will ever experience.That was the art really, what we had made and that was just for us.
At what point did you feel that your practice transitioned from street art to work consciously created for an exhibition or white cube context? Has your manipulation of areas and objects altered over time?
To be honest, it probably came down to convenience and circumstance, rather than a cognisant decision to make ‘gallery work’. Before I had a studio, I was more focused on site-specific work out of necessity, as I didn’t have a dedicated studio space. So I was looking out for places and objects and responding to them. Having a studio gave me the time needed to play and practice, but also to store materials. Finally, I didn’t have to ride my bike carrying litres of paint and weird bits of metal and plastic on my back to work with. A dedicated workspace also increased my interest for painting. Before that, the only painted work was graffiti, but since I’ve moved into a studio I get a lot of pleasure from painting.
Do you draw on the spontaneity of graffiti to inform an intuitive practice? You mentioned working through an “apply and erase” process for example. How does the immediacy and volatility of street art mirror this method?
Certainly, with my paintings, it is all very spontaneous, and personally that is how I feel it has to be. Whenever I have an idea for a painting it turns out terrible, it is much better for me to be playful, responsive and explore materials. Probably, it is because I don’t really know how to paint. At school I hated art lessons and once I got into art it was straight via graffiti. Now when I am painting, I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do or what is going to happen if I do X or add Y to Z, you know? So it is an exploration, I learn how to paint as I paint. Graffiti is the backbone of the work though, a lot of the movement and energy of my body is from it, like some of the tools and the ‘creative destruction’ method which I rely on.
In your paintings ‘Luxury L.’ and ‘Diamonds and Rubies’ you centralise an abstract translation of ****, your preferred tag. What is the symbolic value of this signature to you and why does it remain so central to your paintings?
The alias does have a personal connection to my life or, I suppose, that is how it started. Since then, it has morphed into a new type of significance. A couple of years ago, I was on acid and I began considering the alias as a sort of love letter to Liverpool. It is like a mark of communion; I am a part of the city, I love it here and therefore I want to explore and interact with it. I suppose this is one of the ways I know how to do that. The tag takes a front seat in a lot of my work simply because I spent such a long time reproducing it with my hand and arm. It is now embedded both in my mind and muscle memory. I still draw it on paper every day because it calms me and I am still, somewhat annoyingly, totally fascinated by it.
By working on large scale paintings and site specific interventions you occupy space encouraging movement both across and around your art. Did your experience in tagging encourage you to execute art making as a dance of sorts?
Yes, it definitely taught me how to occupy space and claim the viewer’s attention. To me, that is what the game is about; a well placed and executed tag is worth more than ten crappy waist-high scrawls (even though I love all graffiti, the ugly tags too). I’m also bad at small fiddly tasks, they annoy me. I much prefer to be big and expressive if possible. Referring to the body movements involved in street art as dance is pretty accurate. There is a Parisian artist called Mosa who has done a brilliant project in this regard, translating it much better than I could hope to!
Does employing found and recycled materials such as doors, nets and sandbags prompt the unlearning and re-framing of prosaic objects?
Those objects belong to our usual visual landscape and when you pay attention to them, you get to appreciate their aesthetic value over, or alongside their function. I also can’t really fabricate. I couldn’t make a door, but if I see one around, or some sandbags, I am willing to walk across the entire town with it. That is part of the art for me, the I’m around ridiculousness of enjoying and seeking out these items and then physically struggling to get them to a place where I can arrange my personal narrative for the viewer. Sometimes what I am trying to do is encourage people to notice what they might have not seen. Consider the sandbags, they are everywhere and they are frequently piled up in contorted ways. They are beautiful and ugly, useful and a bit useless. I like that.
By consolidating an engagement with the industrial landscape and its features, how are you able to read the language of cities and artistically respond to its dynamism?
I don’t know if I have a direct answer to this. Where I grew up it was quite safe, we had access to forests and fields where we used to build dens and dirt jumps. It was amazing and I attribute my explorative tendency to that. As I got older though it became stale, many of my friends resorted to drinking and whatnot. Graffiti became an extension of that playfulness I felt growing up with exploring as a necessary byproduct of it. I believe this gives a good understanding of, as you say, the language of the city. In my work, I just show people what I see, what I pay attention to. I don’t go looking for objects per se, I accidentally see them and they get stuck in my head until I do something with them.
How do you reveal your connectivity to the environment? Is this something that is conscious in your dedication to found, natural and recycled materials?
As I was saying before, it may not be a conscious process. Stuff like sandbags or those foamy yellow protective pads for scaffolding become very visible to me when I’m they are around me. I noticed how ubiquitous they are and they got a bit stuck in my head. This is when I began considering how to use them, what to do or how I can display them so that other people can appreciate their presence beyond their utility.
Is the adoption of conversational tones, song lyrics and charismatic wit in your work’s titles as in ‘Left foot left stomp’ and ‘Where’s your sense of nostalgia Pete’ a remark to the informality of your approach?
Haha, I forgot about the ‘left foot left stomp’ title. It is a similar situation as with the objects. They go round and round in my head and get stuck, so I guess titling an art piece is the only use they might have! Giving titles may as well be funny and a bit silly. I believe there is a lot of seriousness in art, but that is not my way of interacting with it. I am aware of the absurdity of spending one’s time stacking sandbags filled with concrete or breaking into a building to tie some balloons for no one to see, you know!?
Has lockdown prompted a modification of your interaction with the digital landscape? The relocation of your visual documentation to Instagram reels for example, or your more recent experiments with screen recordings?
I started playing with the phone and making weird visuals before the pandemic hit, but I did get more into it during the first lockdown. Again, that was all just happenstance. I took a photo and was editing it on my phone, whilst skewing it I noticed that by zooming in far enough it would start to shake and glitch. The device didn’t like what I was doing and that was exciting. Apple’s iPhones are so perfect that finding this bug in the software that I could exploit was cool. It triggered this new work where I am focused on pushing the handset’s boundaries. And obviously, we are all so addicted to it that making work with it and then instantly sharing the results is quite appealing.
Your installation ‘Laughing Gas Pile’ consists of insufflated nitrous oxide canisters crammed in a pile. In what ways does the unmodified arrangement of these containers within a white cube setting arise considerations of material, meaning and memory?
The pile is just a comment on the object. They are really quite beautiful and shiny. They stick out to me a lot when they are discarded and I just like them. I like what they look like. I guess there is also this secondary aspect where I am doing something actually useful for once by picking them up off the floor, which I like.
A door cut in half that has been left unaltered, stark in its geometry. Was there a particular reason you chose not to paint it? Do you think that an object’s biography and natural intrigue is best accentuated in refraining from recreation and displaying it as a raw piece?
Oh, I didn’t even consider painting it! It is good as it is, like a perfect artwork. Had it been a painting, it would be a bad one in the right way, as it is perfectly composed. Better than I could ever paint it. And I suppose, hopefully, it also has some element of intrigue attached to it. People can wonder about its past life, but for me, I kept that door purely for its aesthetic qualities. I think it is wonderful, haha.
Shuffle is a one-night event you launched to convene the creative talent of Liverpool and emphasise the interconnectivity of artistic hubs. Do you see the project expanding into other cities such as Manchester so that the echo chamber of localised art scenes can be permeated?
Yes, 100%. Shuffle is like a DIY contemporary art festival. We select different artists, curators, studios, organisations and give them space to curate for a one-off event. In the last one, we had nine exhibitions and a live music session, all happening at the same time. There were around seventy artists involved, it was good, I had a great time! It has been very well received so far and in the future, I would love to invite people from other cities to participate. Liverpool has a lot of opportunities, we have plenty of talented, creative practitioners and there is a lot of space that can be utilised. I’d like to introduce guests from further afield and build connections with other cities. Manchester is a logical next step as it is so close, but looking ahead, everyone is invited, I have some big ideas for Shuffle.
The sketchbook you showed us illustrated ideas for some rather ambitious, large-scale works. These included ten thousand ping pong balls organised into a cube, a structure of industrial pipes that could be walked around and looked through and a mobile white wall that could be pulled by a tape measure, cracking as it rolled closer. Has social isolation motivated you to consider tactility and plan more interactive elements such as these?
Oh yes, the ping pong balls idea would be fun, I want to suspend a net filled with them above the gallery, cut it and record the sound of the balls falling onto the floor and around the room. The work would be that recording, played over the view of all the balls settled in the gallery. This kind of violent peace seems cool, it’s again another situation that if you didn’t see it happen you never will. The cube idea is made with yoga balls. I like fake and coloured plastic things and cubes. I’ve been a bit obsessed with cubes since I was in school and I learnt to draw them by overlapping two squares and connecting the corners, it blew my mind! I’ve always been quite interested in involving the audience in the work, that is one of the benefits of working outside; people will inevitably interact with the piece, even if that is to destroy it. You don’t often get that kind of interaction in an art space, so I have been thinking about ways to engage with the viewer. I like the idea of driving the audience into making decisions or restricting their path, like what would happen with the idea of the industrial pipes. The plan there is to create a huge cube of scaffolding poles so when you walk into the space, you are faced with this massive wall of metal, with all of the leftover chips and bits of paint, dents etc. That would probably look nice, and then I want to leave just enough room so that one can walk around the side. At the end of the poles, the participant will be able to see the people walking around the far side through them. I want that space to feel a bit cramped, a little bit too small, explorative and odd. I have got loads of large scale ideas that I can’t quite facilitate yet!
Words by Vanessa Murrell