Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Malachi Wilson’s Art Challenges the Viewer to Look and See More Deeply

Malachi Wilson’s “The Artist is Present” at Finch Lane Gallery. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Malachi Wilson’s gallery card initially challenges the viewer who seeks an explanation of his art’s purpose. With careful reading, however, eventually it does make sense. “These works use distinct mediums to approach the footprints and forms of different natural objects, including the human body,” it says. Meaning what? How about the way a musical instrument is designed not only to produce particular sounds, but to work with the body part or parts it was intended to take advantage of? Wilson has built a machine of steel, wood and cast plaster, augmented with analogues of muscles (an electric motor), joints (levers), and the nervous system (a cam and an intervalometer, like the one that turns windshield wipers off and on with various pauses between swipes). Called “The Artist is Present” — presumably the reference invoking a recent performance of the same name by Marina Abramović — the result is a model of how a drum is played: one that clearly displays the characteristics — the “footprints and forms” — of the drum and the arm it was designed to be beaten by. In case the artistry seems questionable, the drumbeat it periodically produces is based on the artist’s own heartbeat.

Nearby, laid out on a pedestal, a collection of sticks a gardener might have saved to use for stakes all but encourage viewers to think they can be taken in with a glance. On closer inspection, though, they are seen to be meticulously cut and shaped from lengths of steel. Stems and branches were invented by plants, with help from evolution and the pressure of gravity, to do a job they performed for millions of years before humans invented steel to do a range of jobs, including those still done by plant parts of infinitely replaceable  and naturally decomposing wood. If there’s a pattern emerging here, it might be that Wilson would like his audience to join him in looking more closely and thinking more deeply about the naturally-occurring things we encounter every day. 

Malachi Wilson, “Sediment I” and “Sediment II”

Central in the gallery’s largely empty space are elaborately set out examples of several materials, and of their properties and uses in which Wilson once again opens a topic that the viewer can follow briefly or more extensively. Here a trio of elements are laid down sequentially; they include an empty cardboard box, a slightly smaller, cast plaster brick, and a piece of flat rock displaying the fossilized imprints of fishes that lived millions of years ago. Astute observers of an active mindset might propose that the fossil-bearing stone would fit neatly into the void in the top of the brick, while the brick would also fit into the cardboard box. Since handling museum pieces to test out such ideas is frowned on, a second display reveals just how that would look, with the three elements combined as suggested. Possible references that come to mind are how many manufactured products leave the factory elaborately packaged in some variation or other of this treatment. Also, actual fragile materials, such as museum specimens, may be stowed so for their protection. In 2022, after the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the way people shop, vast quantities of this sort of packaging assumed new familiarity and importance in some basic behaviors. Questions like whether to recycle and how to keep track of household expenses can challenge home economics and prompt new planning.

Around the periphery of the gallery, Wilson displays four photographs enlarged into gel-medium transfers, each with a cut-out window in which a comment appears, collectively titled “Occupied Spaces.” One image that suggests a couple of leg bones, but could be a lot of things, has a window that reads “Everything is a portrait of something.” These are intriguing to look at, not least for the textures imparted in the process, but they seem like a lot of effort for scant recompense. Maybe their significance will become more apparent over time. It seems fair to point out that Malachi Wilson is trying something relatively unprecedented here, if not outright groundbreaking, and some of the works succeed better than others. A large figure study with holes for spectators or tourists to poke their heads through while having their photos taken is more engaging, and makes the point that we are exploring relatively unknown waters here, so a souvenir photo to show the folks at home on our return implies a comforting and familiar context to the whole adventure.

Malachi Wilson, “Occupied Spaces.” Image credit: Geoff Wichert


Malachi Wilson: Vacancies, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Apr. 21

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