It takes just three steps past the doorway of artist Rick Mallette's bungalow studio to hit its back wall. His galley workspace, the front room of a boxy Northside house, is comically compact. But good light comes through its south windows, and he's learned to work with few resources. These days Mallette considers himself a drawer as much as a painter and often works on napkins and thumbprint-sized sketchbooks at Sitwell's Café on Ludlow Avenue or wherever his wanderings take him. To him, this tiny off-the-street space is fine.
Mallette opens the door to his studio on a January morning that's unseasonably warm to the point of being unsettling. But before looking at the medium-sized canvases and drawings in his studio, it's important to return to the point of inspiration, "Drawing on the Walls," Mallette's latest installation at the third floor gallery of Newport's Southgate House.
"Drawing on the Walls" stands out at first glance because of its dizzying scale. Mallette has one more night to fine-tune the installation, and he plans to work past the midnight hour if necessary.
The immense ink drawing spreads across all four walls of the Southgate House's attic room. Moving about makes the experience richer. The comparisons run the gamut: staring at clouds in the sky, flipping through a comic book, staring at a Rorschach test card.
All four walls are covered with detailed black squibs and blobs via India ink and a Japanese stroke brush. Mallette calculates that more than 80 hours of solo workmanship went into repairing and painting the walls and completing the wall drawing.
The room's transformation is emotionally and visually striking, creating an exemplary work equal to recent installations from local artists Tony Luensman, Matt Coors and Jimmy Baker.
"Drawing on the Walls" is grand but too playful to be considered grandiose. Its improvisational spirit is found in the drips and crisscrossing lines. Its spontaneity is part of its beauty.
A second visit offers the chance to find Mallette's additions, the latest splats drawn in order to better connect all four walls into a single blur.
His public opening is the next day, but Mallette admits to needing a break. His eyes are tired. He needs to step out of the room. It's understandable. "Drawing on Walls" can be a dizzy experience.
Over tumblers of bourbon in Southgate House's first floor bar, Mallette talks about his blue-collar upbringing in Saginaw, Mich., and his time at the Art Institute of Chicago. He rattles off a lifetime's worth of influences, more low than highbrow, and describes his inspiration with enough details to fill a catalog.
He lives in Clifton with his girlfriend. He's a painter and a carpenter and the office manager for the arts enrichment organization Happen Inc. He came to Cincinnati in 2002 to jump-start his art career after working for the Art Institute of Chicago and takes pride in the fact that he's swimming against the tide of numerous departing artists.
A wall-sized drawing on paper at the Carnegie Center in Covington and a collection of drawings at Semantics Gallery show the breadth of Mallette's drawing skills, but the work at Southgate House is his largest and most impressive wall installation.
Back inside his shoebox studio, the first things you notice about Mallette's medium-size wood panels are their pinks, yellows and greens. The colors are pure Japanese Pop, and the effect is bouncy, cheerful, guaranteed to crack a smile. His smaller works, all new, are less overwhelming, but they share in the immediacy felt from the Southgate House wall drawing.
Everything Mallette enjoys talking about comes to mind: Mad Magazine and its Spy vs. Spy comics; Keith Haring; and perhaps his greatest influence, artist Elizabeth Murray, whose postcards of her New York Museum of Modern Art survey show hang from the studio walls.
One more thing: Unlike the wall drawings that are always painted over, Mallette's canvases are permanent. That's something the area's glossy retail galleries need to remember.