Sites of Exhaust: Q & A with artists MALFLOR & Nancy Julia Hicks

Sites of Exhaust: Q & A with artists MALFLOR & Nancy Julia Hicks

Published March 9th, 2023 by AK Garski

MALFLOR (they/them) and Nancy Julia Hicks (they/them) discuss transdisciplinary abstraction, what it means to be legible, and Sites of Exhaust, their collaborative exhibition on view now in the Quarter Gallery at the Regis Center for Art


I was a stranger to the artwork of MALFLOR (AKA Kieran Myles-Andrés Tverbakk) until I clicked on a jpeg file belonging to one of the many grant applicants I had been tasked to review as a panelist for the 2020 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant. Even in the form of photographic documentation, the conceptual intensity and raw materiality of Kieran’s artwork cut me to the quick and brought me to tears. A year later, I met Nancy Julia Hicks when visiting the studio space they share with MALFLOR. I was immediately drawn to a grouping of nylon straps hanging from the ceiling that had been screen printed with poetry. When Nancy placed a football sized rock fragment into one of the nylon straps, I remember bouncing back on my heels with glee: there is nothing quite like seeing two components of an artwork fit together to become a whole. As a nonbinary/trans artist myself, I find delight, despair, and validation — an amalgamation of seemingly contradictory sentiments — in both these artists' works.

Nancy and Kieran’s conceptual interests and material sensitivity dovetail nicely, yet their respective artwork remains quite distinct from one another. We sat down to discuss their collaboration, Sites of Exhaust, an exhibition that, in their words, “investigates the parallels between the environment, built structures, and trans bodies.” 


AK Garski to MALFLOR: I have been following your work since 2019 and notice that you now describe yourself as a “transdisciplinary conceptual artist.” It is a striking descriptive phrase that harkens to your perspective, intentions, and range as an artist. You have also adopted the public persona MALFLOR. Could you share more about this journey? What does it mean to be a conceptual artist working across multiple disciplines? Is the conceptual underpinning of your work influenced by your experience of gender fluidity as an artist who is non-binary and trans?

MALFLOR: I use the term “transdisciplinary” now because visual art is a means to an end to explore my interests in psychology, language, the natural world, material culture, and the politics of queer trans visibility. My practice has been influenced by how I exist in the world, and how I understand myself to be perceived, identified, or categorized. To give the most surface-level “about me,” I am a first-generation Mexican-Norwegian-American non-binary transgender artist. This might tell you what boxes I check on the census but it doesn’t exactly tell you anything about me; there is so much embedded in this compressed identificatory language that it becomes abstract. Understanding this pluralism in my identity has affected how I approach art-making; because I am an amalgamation of many things, I create artworks that are amalgamations of materials and media. To be an amalgamation is to embody many things at once. I am interested in how humans are capable of complexity and contradiction. 

For a lot of my life, I’ve been told that who I am is “wrong” — this influenced my decision to use the name MALFLOR. I often approach art-making from a place of not knowing; a lot of my work is experimental because of the materials and processes I use and so I am leaning into failure, or being wrong, in the studio. The Spanish term Malflora is a slur against lesbians, where “mal” can mean bad, wrong, or ill, and its literal translation is “bad flower.” I find this incredibly interesting because it brings up so many questions. For instance, what does it mean to be of nature and to be bad or wrong? I’ve (re)claimed this word, as someone who identified as a lesbian for 23 years and still identifies with the terms “butch” and “dyke” and also lives in chronic pain. I removed the gendered letter “a” to create the word MALFLOR. I like it because of the potential for anonymity but also the power play of making people call me a queer slur, potentially without their knowledge. 


MALFLOR, DRAINAGE, metal piping, glass jars, motor oil, serous fluid, resin, 2023. 


AK to MALFLOR: The first time I experienced your artwork, I felt its emotional intensity through your material choices. It activated bodily memory for me, and — as a person who is nonbinary and trans myself — it reminded me of how rarely I am presented with the opportunity to interact with visuals created from a trans perspective. In your exhibition with Nancy Julia Hicks, Sites of Exhaust, your sculptural installations often incorporate materials taken directly from the body. You use bodily fluids as a painting medium and a surgical drain is incorporated into a piece titled Left to Give. How did you come to use these materials in your work? 

MALFLOR: In December 2021, I had top surgery and was under the impression I wouldn’t have drains during my recovery period. When I woke up and realized that I did in fact have them, one of the first things I told my friend was to save my fluids. I think that even in my post-op drugged-up state I knew that this was material I would never have access to again and that it marked a specific moment in time in my life and my transition that I wanted to document. After a few days in recovery, I started becoming really restless and wanted to get back to making work but I couldn’t move all that much. I ordered some watercolor paper to be delivered to the apartment I was staying at and began using the fluids collected by my surgical drains to paint self-portraits. I eventually came to the idea of creating screen prints with the fluid of some images I had previously taken. My friend and caretaker throughout my recovery, August Schultz, is a screen printer and so I started asking them about the process and whether or not they thought we could use my serous fluids in lieu of ink. I sent them some photos and they pulled the prints for me a month or so after my surgery. I am incredibly grateful for both their caretaking and assistance with art-making.


MALFLOR, HOOKED, serous fluid on stonehenge paper, metal piping, 2022-23.


As for the drain itself, I actually was not given permission to take it, since it’s considered biohazard waste, but after it was removed and the doctor left the room, I took it out of the trash anyway. This tubing sat in my body for weeks and I had this weird attachment to it. It’s a wild experience watching your bodily fluids actively flowing out of you for days on end, especially when the fluid looks like blood, while knowing that the initial build-up happened because your body is working hard to protect you. When I was thinking about making work for this show, it made sense to include the drain, to draw a distinct parallel between the body and the land, and to consider how the earth works overtime to keep us nourished, protected, and alive, even if we can’t physically see it happening. 


Foreground: MALFLOR, LEFT TO GIVE, found wood, bike chain, nails, surgical drain, metal piping, 2023. Background: Nancy Julia Hicks, Stone #11, screenprint on nylon strapping, liquid latex, stone, cast liquid latex bullets, 2023.


AK to Nancy Julia Hicks: Your work is layered in metaphor, both in your use of text and choice of materials. Latex sheeting is intricately woven together in dense, chunky strips and stretched to the point of transparency across large stretcher bars. As a material, latex is created from rubber and is uniquely malleable, but I understand that it breaks down over time; it can only be stretched so far and for so long before it snaps. Could you tell me more about your process working with this material? What metaphoric potential does latex inspire for you?

NJH: I started using latex in 2018 because of its likeness to skin and its everyday nature. I was interested in using it to create wearable pieces for performance work but wanted to spend time figuring out the material itself. I began screen printing on it almost immediately and found that by stretching the material the printed image or text would deteriorate and change. I’ve become enamored with discovering the limits and abilities of latex itself as a material and have spent the last few years applying it to my interest in metaphor for tension and body through its natural stretch. 


Nancy Julia Hicks, In your hands, screenprint on latex sheeting, dirt gathered from Mississippi riverbank, 2023.


Latex is non-archival, it’s surprisingly volatile and is easily damaged by exposure to sunlight, piercing, overstretching, oil based material, and solvents like mineral spirits. I’ve found the way the material itself shifts based on exposure to these elements is applicable to themes of destruction of bodies and land. I often use asphaltum as a printing medium. Asphaltum is a petroleum byproduct, commonly found on beaches after oil seepages, and it is also used in print shops. I discovered that when asphaltum is applied on top of latex it initially stains and flakes when the latex is stretched. Over the course of months, the asphaltum breaks down the latex until holes form and the latex itself tears. While this is not ideal for archival preservation purposes, the artwork gives itself over to processes of deconstruction through its vulnerable nature. This gives my work a sense of impermanence.


Nancy Julia Hicks, In your hands (detail), screenprint on latex sheeting, dirt gathered from Mississippi riverbank, 2023.


AK to NJH: The text utilized in your work speaks of land and body as a site of continual (de)construction. The word “malleable” is featured prominently, offering the viewer a complex take on fluidity. I find so much honesty in the ambiguity/dual meaning of your language, particularly as it relates to trans bodies. Where do you derive inspiration for the text that you incorporate in your work? 

NJH: The text I use in my work is sourced from poetry I write — the writing in this body of work is sourced from two separate poems. The first text was written after reading about the relationship between the United States’ production of nitrogen fertilizer after the first World War using bomb factories (as nitrogen was the main component of explosives at this point) and its connection to food globalization. I wrote thinking of the effects of something so disparate, thinking about sharing in one body an algae bloom, a wildfire, the discomfort of binding tape, and a bulldozer. 

The second poem referenced in my artwork is an imagined account of a fictionalized historical event. I wrote the poem from the perspective of an onlooker witnessing the off-gassing of an oil derrick in a small town in West Texas in 1973. The onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle of the off-gassing, even setting up picnics. On June 21st, 1973 the derrick flared and collapsed. Over the next fifteen years the tectonic plates below this area shifted and a ridge rapidly formed a volcano on the site of the derrick.

I’ve recently found inspiration when reading about Pompeii, the anatomy of oil derricks, and the writings of Anne Carson and Ursula K Le Guin, and I am fascinated with the idea of creating a sensation or a texture through writing rather than a concrete image, a blending of something grounded in reality that embraces a mythos, something alien. 


Nancy Julia Hicks and MALFLOR, Sites of Exhaust, screenprint on latex sheeting mounted on metal bars, 2023.


AK to MALFLOR & Nancy Julia Hicks: As a result of the catastrophic rise in transphobic legislation, trans, gender expansive, and queer people are being forced to defend their right to exist and explain the relevance of their experiences. In contrast, your exhibition offers little explanation for the artwork; the exhibition statement is short and sweet, and there are no additional statements for individual pieces. The work is allowed to speak for itself. I found this to be inexplicably refreshing. This got me thinking about legibility and how artists of a variety of marginalized identities are often expected to present a palatable representation of their complex experiences. What does it mean to be legible to you? Is this something that you work towards or against? Or do you disregard it altogether in your artistic practices?

MALFLOR: The human need for clarity and definition is so interesting to me; we are so uncomfortable with not knowing because, psychologically, not knowing what is in front of us makes it difficult to discern whether or not something is a threat. For me personally, legibility is akin to being understood and so it is complicated and charged. The desire for legibility has often played such a large part in my personal life that I am firmly disinterested in having it in my work. Numerous times I’ve been asked where I’m from, what my ethnicity is, or to define myself in some concrete way. This happened much more when I presented as a woman, which is important to mention, as these comments were more often than not a means of sexualizing me. I again found myself to be illegible to others when I began socially and medically transitioning. These are just a few examples specifically regarding visual legibility that I’ve contended with. I used to strive for legibility but have always failed, and so I no longer work toward that. Instead, I find it much more exciting and true to live and work in abstraction. I’m not interested in performing the labor it takes to make myself more easily understood, digestible, and consumable for someone else. At the same time, I feel like my work can sometimes be very literal and easy to piece together; it’s just up to the viewer to make those connections.


NJH: I think about legibility in my work a lot — when I started using text in my work, it was to give direct and clear statements. I was committed to a simplistic idea of what accessibility in the arts could mean until I had a professor tell me that assuming my audience couldn’t understand abstraction meant I was dulling my own work and underestimating the knowledge of whoever was looking at my art. For me, this shifted my own restrictions on how I should apply text to my work. It doesn’t have to be directly legible, it can be faded or abstracted or it can be poetic — the legibility comes through in the sensation of the work and my trust that the audience will use what is before them to connect to their own experience. 

I have complex feelings about expectations placed on presentations of marginalized artists — I never want to feel like my work is pared down to my identity because my work is not solely about my experiences. While my work is shaped by my experience as a white trans queer person and it is embedded in what I create, I think it shows through not in conceptual intention but in how I create my work through fluidity and exploration. 


Top: MALFLOR, KROPP/VANN, video still, 00:45, looped, 2022. Bottom: Nancy Julia Hicks, Stone #4, screenprint on nylon strapping, liquid latex, stone, asphaltum, graphite 2021-22


AK to MALFLOR & Nancy Julia Hicks: At the center of your exhibition is a compelling installation piece featuring two videos projected onto a large sheet of latex. One video was created by MALFLOR and the other by Hicks. Could you both describe your process for creating this collaborative piece?

NJH: We discussed collaborating on a video piece when we initially began planning for this exhibition. But when we sat down to discuss the work, we realized we had each created individual performance pieces focusing on similar subject matter that existed through video documentation. The visuals and conceptual undertones of our respective videos were notably similar: both featured bodies of water and referenced natural resources. We also used our bodies to illustrate a connection to, and a draining, of the environment. So we discussed how we could connect the two videos in a way that let the works communicate and build off of each other. 


MALFLOR: Originally, we had an idea to combine some of our footage together to create a video consisting of our own performance-for-video works and some found footage. Eventually, we realized the videos were already in conversation with one another and didn’t necessarily need to be in the same frame or channel. It’s actually kind of funny how it happened, as neither of us included the other in the process of creating the performances or the documentation of it, yet they are so directly related to one another in the sense of being a different side of the same coin: my video speaks to a bodily reintegration with the land and the water on my ancestral lands in Northern Norway, whereas Nancy’s deals with extraction and removal of the earth-body at the Mississippi River here in Minneapolis. ◼︎


Installation view of Sites of Exhaust. At right: MALFLOR and Nancy Julia Hicks, (44.9692254, -93.2421681) I 3,818 between (detail),  Installation, projection on latex sheeting, dirt from Mississippi river bank.


Sites of Exhaust: Works by MALFLOR & Nancy Julia Hicks is currently on view at the Quarter Gallery at the Regis Center for Art through March 18, with a closing reception on Friday, March 17, 6 – 8pm. For more information about the exhibition, visit the Quarter Gallery's website.

MALFLOR’s artwork can be found on their website and on Instagram and Nancy Julia Hicks’ artwork can be viewed on their website or on Instagram @nancyjuliahicks.

All images are courtesy of the artists.

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