Getting to Know You (on Roy McMakin)May 2008
Roy McMakin: When is a Chair Not a Chair?
New York: Skira/Rizzoli
Over the years Roy McMakin has created many variations on the slat-back chair, a classic vernacular piece of furniture that, at first glance, is as familiar as an old friend. He has given these variations the name Simple Chair, and the second version, created in 1990, with a single vertical slat within the wooden frame of its back, has become a recurring object in McMakin’s lexicon. There is nothing simple about designing a chair. Full disclosure: I designed furniture for a few years. I learned that no piece is more difficult to get right than a chair—and it’s easy to tell when it’s wrong: Nobody wants to sit on it, no matter how good it looks.
For McMakin, who likes to play with language, the word simple is something of a provocation. Simple, of course, means dumb. A chair won’t talk back; its generosity, its willingness to be there for your ass, is unconditional. But the word is more complex, more shaded than that. A chair can be generic—and the Simple Chair is probably pretty close to what emerges in the mind’s eye when “chair” is invoked—but chairs can also be incredibly, disarmingly specific. Associations get attached to specific pieces of furniture and sometimes flood the memory. One gets to know a chair over time, and time changes things.
“Simple,” when placed before “chair” is a provocation, because McMakin is an artist. Being an artist, he tells me, is his “calling.” But he is an artist who often gets taken for a designer because he is an artist who makes houses and furniture—furniture that actually gets used as, well, furniture. In 1987 he opened Domestic Furniture, a storefront on Los Angeles’s Beverly Boulevard, for the display and sale of his objects (and sometimes those of others). He produced a seemingly endless number of drawings for potential furniture pieces, and then realized many of them for an audience that included lots of people in the entertainment industry—many you’ve probably heard of. His work frequently garnered attention in the press; his objects and furniture were the subjects of lavish spreads in magazines such as Metropolitan Home. He was commissioned to create the set for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
He does this an artist, with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in fine art from an accredited institution. He has made—and still makes—paintings, photographs, and sculpture. He has exhibited at highly reputable galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and elsewhere. He has even performed for a live audience.
“My job,” McMakin confides, “is to create meaningful objects.” This sounds simple enough at first, and then you realize that there isn’t a title to match that job description. Which probably explains why there is so much anxiety around “design” when it gets attached to “art” or crosses its path or just hangs out in the general vicinity. It’s a professional anxiety in a profession—art-making—that likes to pretend it’s not uptight or even a profession at all; that instead it’s about breaking rules, pushing boundaries, questioning categories, upsetting hierarchies, and so on. You know—fucking things up. The hypocrisy of all this becomes transparent when design walks in the door like the guest you didn’t really want to invite to your party.
Dozens of artists—from Scott Burton to Vito Acconci, Andrea Zittel to Michelangelo Pistoletto, Richard Artschwager to Donald Judd—have made furniture objects; but all of these artists have also successfully avoided being categorized, derisively in many cases, as designers. This mostly depends on functionality and context. Seemingly, the less functional an object is, the more it clearly identifies as art. Where artists have made perfectly functional furniture, the context of its exhibition becomes crucial. For example, presenting designed objects in an art gallery alleviates many concerns about their status as art objects—as if a showroom isn’t just a gallery with another name attached. If McMakin’s objects or the Domestic Furniture showroom are not always understood as works of art, it is because McMakin has spent little time trying to convince people they are, indeed, art.
Scott Burton, whose body of work is largely composed of furniture-objects, many intended for public space, has been an influence for McMakin. But while functional, typically, Burton’s objects clearly signal their historical relationship to Minimalist sculpture. They have “gravitas,” as McMakin puts it—meaning heaviness of materials and purpose, I suppose, but also a certain kind of overcompensation. You probably won’t find one sitting unassumingly at a dining table. A difference emerges: Burton was an artist making furniture as art; McMakin is an artist making furniture as furniture.
For McMakin objects are not simply divided into the categories of functional and nonfunctional or design and art but exist in a complex continuum between these simple dichotomies. The point, to return to McMakin’s job as he describes it, is to create meaningful objects. And objects are made meaningful when they are encountered by and used by bodies, over time—when they are pulled across the mutable, often ambiguous threshold that separates art and life.
Undoubtedly, McMakin’s body of work can be (and should be) placed in an artistic lineage that includes, to cite only a few obvious examples, John McLaughlin, Robert Irwin, and Charles Ray—that is, a lineage of interest in formal issues of space and perception that has developed on the west coast that McMakin has called home for three decades.McLaughlin’s spare, immaculate, geometric paintings precede and predict Minimalism. Many of the paintings rely on a palette of black, white, and (sometimes) gray and a modicum of rectangular shapes to efficiently construct figure-ground conundrums that a viewer can never fully resolve. Many of McMakin’s furniture pieces, including a desk and a dresser, follow McLaughlin’s tactics closely, employing black lines that are nearly indistinguishable from the negative space of voids or gaps, for example. See McLaughlin’s painting #2 (1972), in which two horizontal black bands seem to simultaneously float on and recede from the expansive white ground. Despite his “reductive” approach and palette and his use of common geometric forms, McLaughlin’s canvases are instantly recognizable, surely due to his consistent sense of proportions. This is true of McMakin’s work as well; he expands McLaughlin’s sensibility into three dimensions while mining the perceptual possibilities that emerge in the process. For example, in Untitled (Painting Chair) (2005) McMakin exploits the voids in the back of a slatted chair by painting a gray rectangle around the negative space, creating a composition that is clearly a homage to McLaughlin but that exists in real, not pictorial, space.
Another precedent for McMakin is Robert Irwin, who has gradually shifted from discrete art objects—mostly paintings—to the production of perceptual puzzles on an environmental scale. Irwin’s best work is accomplished with a modest number of materials and maneuvers. For 1o 2o 3o 4o (1997) Irwin simply cut square apertures in the existing windows of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla—located in a renovated building by Irving Gill—subtly opening the space to the sound, smell, and unfiltered view of the Pacific Ocean. The work operates slowly; the viewer gradually becomes aware that the division between interior and exterior has been punctured.
In 1980 Irwin created an installation in a storefront studio on Market Street in Venice, California, replacing the wall facing the street with a transparent white scrim through which the clean, empty, well-lit interior was revealed to passersby—many of whom were surely unaware of the intent or identity of the experience as a work of art. Much of Irwin’s work in his Market Street studio from this period would be difficult to classify as anything other than ongoing experimentation aimed at altering perceptual experience by transforming the studio space itself. For example, Irwin removed the hard angles of the interior space by rounding each of the corners.
McMakin has approached many of his spaces—and particularly the Domestic Furniture storefront—with a similar sense of playfulness (or mischievousness), intending to produce a similar alteration of perceptual experience. Domestic Furniture, despite its commercial appearance and operation, was constantly subjected to McMakin’s alterations—frequently achieved with furniture and other functional objects. For McMakin perceptual play can be activated at nearly any scale, in a small slat-back chair or a huge house, though the latter is more likely to contain a constellation of compelling experiences.
Charles Ray and McMakin (who are nearly the same age) share concerns of perception, scale, and material misapprehension, which they have articulated through obsessive and detail-oriented fabrication. Many of Ray’s sculptures incorporate or take the form of furniture, including How a Table Works (1986)—which teaches its lesson without actually using a tabletop—and Table (1990), in which an anxious arrangement of Plexiglas vessels without bottoms are fused with a tabletop of the same material. In 1974, Ray made Bench, a large wooden board activated and held off the floor by two people sitting on it, one at each end, compressing it between them. Despite his use of functional forms—and the questions they raise—his work is always understood in relation to the discourse of art, not to design or some limbo in between these categories. This is likely a result of Ray’s frequently noted single-minded devotion to sculpture—a medium-specific framework expansive enough to associate his work with photography, 16 millimeter film, furniture, and performance. Of course, while Ray activates many of his furniture objects, they are generally meant to be looked at, not touched, and they are not meant to be used, unlike most of McMakin’s objects.
McMakin’s outlook has also been informed by architecture and design: the blocky forms by early California modernist architect Irving Gill—buildings that “quietly choreograph one’s life,” as Michael Darling has described them—not to mention the sensitive woodworking (and, particularly, the precise and beautiful butterfly joints) by furniture designer George Nakashima, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the simplified Shaker style and other vernacular American traditions. But how do all these points of reference come together, if they do? Any artist or architect worth thinking about is more than a checklist of influences, and McMakin is no exception. None of these figures, formal tropes, or historical precedents can account for the specificity of McMakin’s body of work, which is remarkably consistent and instantly recognizable after several encounters: his proportions, which, to me, often seem enlarged or otherwise distorted or exaggerated; his love for the color green, for example, in its verdant variety; his abundant visual humor, which is sometimes sarcastic, sometimes flat-footed, sometimes dirty, sometimes melancholy.
Getting to know a piece of furniture is like getting to know a body. Just as one remembers the eccentric grain pattern of a desk or dresser, the well-worn arms of a favorite chair, or the slightly sagging seat marking the preferred position on the old family sofa, the specific physiological details of a loved one or a lover—facial features, bodily proportions, the color and texture of the skin, birthmarks, scars, subtle asymmetries—can linger and even haunt the memory. In 1990 McMakin designed a honey-toned and perfectly functional chest of drawers and titled the piece Maple Chest. The straightforward title belies the eccentricity of the work’s details, which reveal themselves over time: The side panels are partially open, exposing several drawers; the front legs are strangely curvy and tapered; the spherical pulls are spaced differently on each drawer; and—most unnervingly—an avocado-shaped depression is located centrally on the only drawer with no pulls. The depression is at the same height as the similarly shaped solar plexus of McMakin’s lover at the time, playing with the double meaning of the word chest and lending the piece of furniture a provocative bodily presence. To access the drawer, one reaches into it as if into a chest cavity. A more recent design, Untitled (Grab, Push & Pull Chest) (2004), reiterates the concave indentation at chest height; however, the piece is devoid of pulls, save for one centrally located on the drawer second from the bottom, suggesting in placement a simplified or primitive rendition of a cock.
Mahogany Chest (1987) was perhaps the first in this series of dressers that address the body and its unexpected details and flourishes: It is marked by arrhythmic horizontal gaps between some of the drawers, a top plane that cantilevers off the back of the piece (which pushes and holds the chest away from the wall), and—most provocatively— wooden pulls that differ in shape and size and spacing on every drawer, not unlike nipples in various states of arousal.
Every piece of furniture—every functional object, for that matter—signals to the body, first through sight, then through touch. For McMakin, who obviously acknowledges those signals, the physiognomy of furniture is a crucial point of contact between self and other and a complexly encoded mediation between a body and the world surrounding it—some pieces are just more explicit than others. Take Untitled (Sitting Wingback Chair) (2004), which (purposely, I think) calls to mind Hans Wegner’s overtly masculine but warmly comforting modernist classic Papa Bear chair. McMakin’s version is upholstered in fabric that is unmistakably skin-toned; it literally has an ass, and—no, you’re not hallucinating—that ass sits directly on the floor.
In Nightstand (1999) two identical slat-back chairs lie on their sides, intertwining, 69-ing. The work is unmistakably anthropomorphic, but it also plays with functionality, making a bedside table from two chairs that have been denied their primary use value. (Perhaps it also bears mentioning that the sex act Nightstand refers to is not “useful,” in terms of sexual reproduction.) Nightstand locates a poetic complexity between function and nonfunction rather than adamantly clinging to one end of the spectrum or the other.
Even when a piece of furniture or an object does not have an overt sexuality, it still subtly implies intimacy. In a series of full-scale photographs from 2006, McMakin documents found furniture and objects (a Dutch oven, a cake tin, a black gate-leg table, a ceramic vessel by Seattle artist Jeff Mitchell, dollhouse furniture, and so on) with an almost scientific objectivity that, paradoxically, approaches the level of irrational obsession. A Green Dresser—six photographs, one representing each side of the object—lavishes enormous attention on a desirable object found at the curbside (it was love at first sight). Each photograph is a grid composed of numerous, discrete, and methodically organized exposures. Like a Mercator-projection map, the sum total of subtle distortions reveal imperfections of the full object, not to mention the gradually accumulated wear and tear of time—what might be called personality. It is difficult not to see these photos as portraits.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that McMakin has, on occasion, implicated himself—and his own body—in relation to furniture. The most direct example is not a piece of furniture but an early diptych of paintings on paper on a wooden shelf. Self Portrait with Jim (1981) presents a realistic rendering of McMakin’s then boyfriend and pictures the artist as an armchair by modernist designer Norman Cherner. In 2000 McMakin exhibited Two Chests, One with No Knobs, One with Slightly Oversized Drawers—the former chest a sort of mute conundrum; the latter an empty skeleton with its six white-faced drawers stacked neatly but nearly uselessly nearby. With sly humor the work communicates anxiety about its own functionality, or lack thereof—its inadequacy. Poignantly, McMakin has confided that the working title of the piece was Self Portrait, though he “kinda chickened out and changed the name when it was done.” He also has suggested that his familiar slat-back chair—a form that appears frequently in a variety of guises and occasionally in anthropomorphic configurations, including the 69- ing chairs of Nightstand—is, in some ways that only he could know, a surrogate for himself.
When McMakin was a young boy, he saw an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “Little Girl Lost,” written by prolific science fiction and fantasy author Richard Matheson. The episode, which originally aired in 1962, was supposedly inspired by an incident in which Matheson’s own daughter cried out for help in the middle of the night and was found to have fallen out of bed and rolled against the wall, disappearing from sight. In “Little Girl Lost” a child named Tina falls out of bed and disappears through the bedroom wall, and her desperate cries, which awaken her parents, are heard from another dimension. Omniscient narrator Rod Serling sets the scene in his characteristically authoritative voice:
Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked into bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard—aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment—in the Twilight Zone.
Tina’s parents, Chris and Ruth Miller, joined by Bill, their psychologist neighbor, move the girl’s bed away from the wall after, curiously, marking its position with four stacks of books. Bill discovers a portal to another dimension in the dark-gray wall and draws a diagram of overlapping lines around it. He explains that lines that run parallel in the third dimension often bend and cross in the fourth. And then he makes his hand disappear into the wall.
Still hearing his daughter’s cries, along with barking by the family dog, which has also crossed over, Chris plunges through the wall into the other dimension—a fuzzy, convex space where up is sometimes down, and vice versa—and, with a little help from the dog, rescues his daughter. They return to the bedroom in the nick of time, just as the portal rapidly closes and the wall becomes solid again. Bill explains that Chris had been in limbo between the third and fourth dimension, and he was nearly ripped in half as the portal closed. “The other half where?” intones Rod Serling. “The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer.”
Recently viewing “Little Girl Lost” again, for the first time in years, McMakin still found Tina’s slip into another dimension “kinda plaintive and scary.” When he was a boy the episode not only disturbed him but actually changed his relationship to walls—and furniture. After first seeing it he immediately moved his bed from the corner of the room toward the center. McMakin revealed this telling anecdote to me in the comfort of his open and spacious Seattle loft when I asked why nearly all of the plentiful furniture is placed away from the walls.
I’m not a psychologist, real or pretend, but something about The Twilight Zone story immediately connected with patterns and details I had observed in McMakin’s work up close and from afar, in that moment and over time. This is when the word threshold came to mind, arriving at my proverbial doorstep.
When I land in Seattle to meet McMakin in person, I inevitably get lost looking for the ferry terminal that connects West Seattle with Vashon Island. (Over the phone he gives me impeccable directions, rife with landmarks and precise visual cues.) The massive, rusting ferry is a threshold in slow motion, drifting back and forth across the Puget Sound. Deep into the afternoon, McMakin picks me up on the Vashon Island side, and we drive to a house he designed for Steve Jensen, idyllically situated on the Sound. The driveway leading to the house is a distinctly winding path—an homage to the indirect approach Frederick Law Olmstead designed for Vermont’s Shelburne Farms in 1886, I’m told—another threshold, in which the complex architectonics of the Jensen House pop out and flatten, fold and unfold from a distance.
A threshold is a place of passing through or crossing over. A threshold can be a kind of limbo—if not between dimensions then between here and there, between one space and another, between inside and outside, between known and unknown. A threshold is at once goodbye and hello.
Details in and around the Jensen House recall the gaps between the furniture and the walls in McMakin’s home: A banister concludes before it touches the wall, a block of three concrete stairs in the backyard is set a few inches away from the deck it appears to connect to. These missed connections probably reveal some amount of personal anxiety on McMakin’s part, but far more compelling than any psychological implications is how these exaggerated thresholds manage to decelerate the experience of perception and render it legible by setting up and then disrupting expectations, like a slapstick gag in slow motion.
McMakin’s houses are complex, choreographed sequences of thresholds and reveals, elaborated details and discontinuities. In the house he designed for collectors Bill and Ruth True in Seattle’s Washington Park neighborhood, two massive wooden staircases never quite touch the walls, resting instead on cantilevered white-painted steel “fingers” that support the structures with apparent casualness. The stairs appear so sturdy and familiar at first glance that one might not notice the delicate engineering until halfway up or down.
In the basement of the True House, to get to the guest bedroom you pass the laundry room then wind through a curving, clean, white corridor—an anticipatory threshold between here and there; one could easily “miss” it as a point-of-interest, even as it reiterates the eccentric, torquing shape of the house in miniature. The guest room is entirely conventional, functionally-speaking, with a queen-size bed, a nightstand to one side, and a small bookcase to the other. Except that it is not conventional at all. Something, in fact, looks very, very wrong. The space is divided into three unequal sections—white, gray, and, well, normal—as if it is situated on a threshold between three adjacent dimensions. The bed is completely surrounded by gray, which also cuts through the nearby pieces of furniture and engulfs the section of wall behind the bed and the ceiling above. A similar block of white swallows the other end of the room, along with part of a round wooden table. I’m told that gray pajamas that match the bed are offered to visitors. To spend the night there could mean waking up in a different dimension.
Lequita Faye Melvin is the name McMakin gave to a grouping of nineteen pieces of furniture and decorative objects including, among others, a bed frame with filigreed legs of stacked turned-wood spheres, a small upholstered armchair, a desk, side tables, several chests of drawers, a footstool, lamps, a stack of three square cushions, and a sunburst wall clock prone on the floor. The work was initially installed at McMakin’s survey at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 and then at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in 2005. Constructed from wood and upholstery and colored a uniform gray, the group of objects, huddled together densely in some sort of furniture purgatory— awaiting moving day, a yard sale, deep storage. . . ?
Lequita Faye Melvin is also McMakin’s mother’s maiden name. The title of an artwork— or any name, for that matter—is largely functional: It identifies something or someone, establishing its difference from all other things or persons. But a name is also an object with qualities—associative or poetic—that reach beyond function. McMakin has always loved his mother’s name, and the work that shares her name is based on the artist’s memory of furniture and objects in his grandparents’ house in Oklahoma, where Lequita Faye Melvin was raised. McMakin sketched each of the individual objects and handed over the drawings—more ideograms than fully realized designs—to his shop manager, Scott Graczyk, who extrapolated a digital rendering from each sketch and constructed them in three dimensions.
The haunting presence of Lequita Faye Melvin is in part due to the work’s double remove—first through memory, with all its gaps, imperfections, and exaggerations; second through translation from one dimension to another. Initially the homogenous gray tone lends the individual elements a hazy, generic, or archetypal quality, but further examination reveals remarkable specificity among the pieces: One of the two chests of drawers is streamlined and vaguely Moderne, with big round pulls; a pattern based on a bunch of grapes is impressed into a tabletop; one of the lamps sprouts from the back of a woman’s hoop skirt and another emerges from a horse’s back; what at first appears to be a fancy wedge-shaped upholstered chair is perhaps an orphaned piece of a sectional sofa; and so on.
That these details persisted in McMakin’s memory is hardly insignificant; nor is the fact that the work is named after his mother. The accuracy of the transposition from memory to three dimensions is inevitably imperfect—data loss is built into the very fabric (and fabrication) of these objects. An eerie coincidence: The horse lamp in Lequita Faye Melvin is uncannily similar to the lamp in Tina Miller’s gray bedroom, suggesting that memory, for McMakin, is a kind of twilight zone—a transitory limbo not only between two spaces, but also between one time and another, between past and present.
While still in graduate school at the University of California San Diego, McMakin staged two performances that suggest that the corporeality of furniture—furniture as a threshold between the body and the world—was on his mind from the earliest moments of his career. There is no known physical record or documentation of these performances, both of which took place at Sushi, an alternative gallery and performance venue in San Diego. (Again, McMakin’s memory plays an important, if imperfect role here.) The first performance, titled Love in a Charles Eames Chair (1980), is still the most explicit manifestation of sexuality between the body and furniture in McMakin’s work. According to McMakin,
Love in a Charles Eames Chair was about my dual attraction for order and style and messiness. I was thinking of the [Eames-designed] Rosewood lounge chair, and one was in the piece. . . . I was pointing out that it was hard to fuck in that chair, that it implied an optimism that was ultimately rigid and didn’t allow a messy circumstance, which life is kinda all about.
So it should not come as a surprise that McMakin, who is still often narrowly defined as a furniture designer or architect, was the student of Allan Kaprow. McMakin began his art studies at the Portland Museum of Art School, but transferred to UCSD, where he completed his BA in 1979 and his MFA three years later. The presence of Kaprow was the initial lure to San Diego. A student of John Cage and Meyer Schapiro, Kaprow had emerged as a pivotal figure in the late 1950s for his development of Environments and Happenings—two highly influential forms of participatory art he largely defined through his prolific work and writing. Kaprow’s practice evolved from performance that challenged the proscenium of traditional theater without entirely leaving consideration of an audience behind (in his seminal 18 Happenings in Six Parts (1959), for example) to works performed by an individual, sometimes without an audience—dragging art into the everyday or repositioning it as an interior experience.
Kaprow’s immediate influence on McMakin is most legible in the younger artist’s two student performances. However, while Kaprow’s notion of the “blurring of art and life” seems foundational to an understanding of McMakin’s career (especially in light of these “messy” performance works), he claims that Kaprow was ultimately a minor figure in his development at UCSD, at least compared to faculty members Jean-Pierre Gorin, Patricia Patterson, and Manny Farber: “I really went there to study with Allan Kaprow and was happily kidnapped by Manny’s vision. Maybe more than I realized.”
To set the scene: In 1982, the year McMakin received his MFA, Kaprow presented the Happening Company at Rutgers University, Farber was convicted for resisting arrest for an altercation with UCSD campus police, Farber and Patterson (the two are married) were interviewed by Gorin for the important French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, and Gorin began work on Routine Pleasures (1986), his remarkable feature-length film-essay interweaving an intimate study of a group of Pacific Beach model train enthusiasts on the Del Mar fairgrounds with a portrait of Farber, his friend, mentor, and fellow instructor. The subject of Routine Pleasures—and the meandering and elliptical approach Gorin takes toward it in a numbered series of attempts and false starts—is emblematic of what Farber defined in his important 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” as “termite art tendencies,” in which an artist approaches a subject by gnawing at it over time and from the margins: “A peculiar fact about the termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” Termite art implicates gaps, holes, and voids—limbos the viewer fills to complete the work. “White elephant art,” on the other hand, is all too obvious in its totalizing strategies, always overcompensating and overplaying its hand.
“The important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art,” Farber wrote in 1971, nearly a decade after introducing the term, “is an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside works through a horizontal coverage.” Farber’s notion of termite art is perhaps most apparent in his own compelling still life paintings, which typically position a tabletop carefully littered with objects—flowers, fruit, toy trains, handwritten notes—as the picture plane of the canvas. The perspective of these paintings is subtly disorienting; above the table but hovering close to its surface, the viewer must trade an objective sense of the whole in order to see the minutely detailed individual objects.
Farber’s paintings are about daily life, with all its poetic potential and its complexity and ambiguity. The same could surely be said for McMakin’s objects, which continually cross a threshold between function and contemplation, meaning and anonymity: “I have always seen functionality as a tool I use to understand and point out both my fascination with and relationship to objects and to language. Call something a table, and you put your keys on it, and something happens. It’s profoundly transformative.” McMakin’s termite approach allows him to negotiate the often slippery terrain between art and function by pulling art into the everyday rather than pushing the everyday onto a pedestal. Objects are made meaningful when they are encountered by and used by bodies over time. Meaning is transitory, ambulatory; it passes through and sometimes takes a seat.
In Routine Pleasures Gorin infiltrates his subjects’ world by refusing the role of dutiful, objective documentarian. Instead, seeking “horizontal coverage,” he gradually burrows into the middle of a tight-knit club of “train people,” developing true intimacy with a community of men stuck in time and caught in limbo between masculine responsibility and boyish fantasy. The termite’s initiation period is complete when the group’s stolid leader, Corky (who, it turns out, is also an amateur filmmaker), adds an exacting small- scale replica of Gorin’s dented car to the Pacific Beach train set.
Not unlike Gorin’s gentle infiltration of Farber’s and the train people’s circles, McMakin’s relationship to his chosen home lingers on the threshold between intimacy and community. McMakin has established a familiar presence in the cheery Seattle neighborhood of Madrona, where the storefront office of Domestic Furniture is now located. McMakin and his partner, Mike Jacobs, live in the same building as the office, in an open, forty-by-forty foot-square domestic space—the square footage is roughly equal to Irving Gill’s Morgan House, which the artist had owned in Los Angeles. McMakin’s art studio is positioned between one space and the other, and it is obvious that the threshold between work and life, between Domestic and domesticity, is constantly blurred.
McMakin purchased an existing property across the street from his live/work space and expanded it into a cluster of three buildings that he named The Knew Gardens. (He has a longstanding fondness for buildings named “Gardens” that have hardly a plant in sight, not to mention an affection for puns.) These include a yellow-accented French bistro; a big house converted into a duplex and painted gray and brown; and a slender, red, barnlike studio for a graphic designer that appears to bleed into the boxy building next door, even bisecting two windows—a gesture that was somehow inspired by The Twilight Zone episode and perhaps also by Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974), in which the artist cut a house in half with a chainsaw.
Big Leaf—a variety of maple tree—is the name of McMakin’s manufacturing operation, a huge workshop in a decidedly industrial Seattle neighborhood. Wandering through the shop from the woodshop construction area to the upholstery station to the paint booth to the lumber room to the shop office to the lunch table, one encounters a vast array of McMakin’s objects in various states of completion, a continuous process necessarily realized by a skilled team of workers. One gets a sense—a dizzying sense—of how many projects and objects McMakin is juggling in his head at any given time, from entire buildings to singular, one-off pieces of furniture, each considered down to the smallest detail. In all of this there is remarkable consistency: McMakin’s distinctive “signature” is immediately, reassuringly apparent in every object along the way, suggesting that a level of familiarity and trust has been established between himself and the people around him. This, too, is a community, and a significant part of McMakin’s daily routine.
McMakin has also established a small community on Vashon Island, where he spends his weekends. He and Jacobs reside there in a modest but picturesque wood cabin clad in rough-sawn boards. McMakin lived in the cabin for years without making changes; now he works on it in fits and starts. Manny Farber’s still life painting Laser (1986) is hanging in the cabin; like memories, objects move and accumulate glacially, over time. A perpetual work in progress, the cabin suggests another self-portrait.
Several years ago McMakin purchased the Old Fuller Building in downtown Vashon. Built in 1884, the building was known as The Old Reliable Store, the first general store on the island. Jacobs—a genetic scientist and wine connoisseur—opened a shop in the building and named it Reliable Wines. Adding to the “main street” tone, a bakery, a barbershop, and some smaller offices also occupy the building.
McMakin’s characteristic sensibility and presence, neighborly but hardly overbearing, is essential to both of these small-scale communities—in contrast, say, to Donald Judd’s lopsided presence in Marfa, Texas, years after his death. McMakin has leapfrogged up the West Coast from San Diego to Los Angeles to Seattle and has marked his place at each stop along the way. And in return each place has left its own mark on the artist, proving that identity is a meeting place between self and community.
In San Diego McMakin was a young artist under the influence of Kaprow, Farber, and Gorin, moving fluidly between object-making, performance, and installation. In Los Angeles he found success well beyond the confines of the art world with Domestic Furniture and subsequent high-profile commissions for an impressive list of clients in the entertainment industry. Gradually, his role as designer to the stars overshadowed his work as an artist. In Seattle, at a comfortable remove from the rather reductive, central-casting tendencies of Hollywood, McMakin has managed to wear a variety of hats every day—artist, architect, manufacturer, landlord, neighbor—with a casual agility that defines the termite approach: “A journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside works through a horizontal coverage.”
Love & Loss: An Outdoor Sculpture is the title of what might be McMakin’s best known work, realized for Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2005–06. Situated at the edge of the park, with Puget Sound a few feet to the west and a stunning view of the Seattle skyline, with its iconic, optimistic Space Needle, and the Olympic mountains to the east, Love & Loss pulls together language and landscape while modestly offering visitors to the park a place to sit and enjoy the view.
The elevated, rotating ampersand inextricably linking “Love” to “Loss” is red neon, matching Alexander Calder’s monumental modernist sculpture Eagle (1971) halfway across the park. The words love and loss are actually intertwined—like a crossword puzzle, like two bodies passing through one another; they share an extruded O that doubles as a pool or well. The other letters are formed by pieces of furniture, with the exception of the winding S-shaped footpath and the V made of the fork of two tree branches painted white. It’s much easier to read from a distance—say, in a picture—than up close, where the letters give way to their role as furniture.
In recent years McMakin has taken to the landscape, a vast threshold between art and life. In 2004 he realized a major outdoor commission for the Koret Quad at the University of California San Francisco-Mission Bay. The work comprises 120 discrete pieces—a seemingly ad hoc variety of seats and tables, including benches in wood and concrete, and what appear to be Eames side chairs, cheap plastic garden chairs, and cardboard file boxes. These latter items are in fact imposters, meticulously cast in bronze and painted to look like the commercially available objects they clone. The pieces are distributed over the existing landscape grid with a casual look of indeterminacy; several boulders— primitive public seating—add to the Zen-garden sensibility. What appears to be haphazard and ephemeral, organized only by use, is methodically arranged and as stable as bronze implies. Things Change/Change Things is the title of a large-scale, language- based outdoor proposal for the University of California Riverside campus. It follows the strategies of Love & Loss, but, rather than intersecting, the words—“Things” and “Change”—follow one another in a daisy chain of repetition: Things change; change things. It’s a lesson and an assignment rolled into one.
The message of Love & Loss is unabashedly sentimental and touching; the words are inseparable, like two chairs nesting quietly. On a gray Seattle day, the sense of mourning in the marriage of those words is, well, haunting, no matter how cheery McMakin’s letterforms are. The work speaks of time and intimacy and accumulated experience and the twilight zone of memory—it marks its place in a “temporal landscape,” to borrow a phrase from one of the train people in Routine Pleasures. Amid graded hills of stoic, unblinking abstract sculptures, Love & Loss wears its heart on its sleeve, revealing private understanding to its public. It’s an open letter—a love letter—to a city, to a community, and, yes, to you.
I get the sense that Love & Loss is also a self-portrait.
1. Roy McMakin eventually stopped using the name Simple for the chair, in large part because the word had became a buzzword and the name of a lifestyle magazine. Hoping to avoid the association, McMakin switched to the name Slat-Back Chair.
2. All quotations by McMakin are from conversations with the author, January to April 2008.
3. In recent years Robert Irwin’s practice has increasingly shifted toward garden and landscape design and subtle architectural alterations. Both artists received commissions for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which opened in 1997. Irwin designed the Central Garden; McMakin designed furniture for the private office spaces. Neither “collaborator” was chosen or approved by the Center’s architect, Richard Meier.
4. McMakin recently designed a storefront office for the film editing company Sea Level on Market Street in Venice. It too plays on the expectation of privacy and the publicness of a building’s facade, but with a (mostly) horizontal reveal rather than a scrim.
5. For an insightful discussion of Irving Gill’s influence on McMakin, see Michael Darling’s essay for the exhibition catalogue Roy McMakin: A Door Meant as Adornment, ed. Lisa Mark (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003).
6. From Rod Serling’s introductory narration in The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” season three, episode ninety-one. It originally aired March 16, 1962, when McMakin was five years old.
7. The second performance, which occurred in 1981, was titled Supine in the Arroyo. As McMakin describes it, “Supine . . . was a dialogue between two people. It started with a small fragment of conversation, and then that fragment was repeated again, with different actors, with additional dialogue added to the beginning and end of it, changing the meaning. The ‘meaning’ of each segment shifted enormously with each segment. It was about not knowing, and not knowing where love is (I think). The [title] came from all the time I spent high on mushrooms in the arroyos of San Diego trying to make sense of all kinds of love songs and wanting to find love and being gay and being in [the] landscape.”
8. Jean Pierre Gorin was a student of Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault at the Sorbonne, and is best known as Jean-Luc Godard’s collaborator from 1968 to 1972. Working together as the Dziga Vertov Group following the leftist uprising of May 1968, Godard and Gorin made a number of politically volatile and formally experimental films—including Vent d’est (Wind from the East, 1969); Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda; and the subsequent Letter to Jane (1972)—all of which are hallmarks of European avant-garde cinema. While touring college campuses, Gorin and Godard visited UCSD and encountered faculty member Manny Farber, a painter better known for his tough and incisive film criticism in The Nation, Artforum, Time, and elsewhere. Finding intellectual affinity with Farber, Gorin was quickly offered a teaching position at USCD and abruptly traded the Left Bank and Godard for the west coast.
9. Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in Negative Space: Manny Faber on the Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), pp. 135–36.
10. Farber, introduction to Negative Space, p. 10.
11. A similar, but more complex detail acts as a hinge or pivot between the two perpendicular masses of the Vashon Island House, designed for Steve Jensen.
12. Bench (2004) is another work by McMakin in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Composed of cast concrete, it is symmetrical with seats facing in opposite directions and seems to be an explicit homage to Scott Burton. McMakin also used this design for the Koret Quad at the University of California San Francisco-Mission Bay.
13. These imposters may be another nod to Burton, who made a bronze cast chair in 1975.