Seattle sculptor, furniture maker, and architect Roy McMakin is perhaps best known for his piece in the downtown sculpture park featuring a rotating red ampersand. KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, has been following his work for years, but he tells us that the light didn’t completely dawn until he visited his current show at the Western Bridge alternative art space south of downtown.
McMakin’s typical pieces looked like home furnishings: familiar-looking chests, tables, and chairs – workshop furniture rerouted to the gallery rather than the showroom. Sly things were happening to some of the pieces, to be sure: tops were misaligned on some of the tables, drawers weren’t quite fitting into their slots in some of the dressers, and chairs were sometimes hung on walls rather than sitting on the floor. A further puzzle was presented by large photographic murals, seemingly unrelated to the furniture (although they also involved familiar objects), documenting a particular banal subject like a picture bought at a thrift store in a precise, architectural fashion: front, top, side, back. Was the furniture meant to be functional, although a bit odd, or was it meant to be seen purely as sculpture? What did the photography have to do with anything? And what exactly was the point?
I don’t know if it’s me that’s changed, or if I just needed to see more of the art at a time, but the exhibition at Western Bridge makes perfect sense to me in terms of what McMakin is attempting to say, and how he is attempting to say it, and I had a great time, from beginning to end. Mostly it’s still a furniture show (accompanied by photography of furniture and people with furniture), but I get why it’s in an art gallery and not a warehouse, and some of it made me think deep art thoughts about things like the way perception forms reality and value gets assigned to objects, and how something simple can suggest something really complicated, and I didn’t think at all about what might look good in my living room, or how comfortable a piece would be to sit on.
McMakin get us off to a good start with the title of the exhibition itself, which couldn’t be more straightforward: “I Continue to Believe in the Potential to Express Hope and Sorrow though Furniture”. Nothing coy or ironic here, but simply a statement of fact; McMakin sees furniture the way I see paint, as an artistic medium no less effective for its seeming unsuitability for the task.
And upon entering the exhibition, there is almost immediately a series of works which make the point in a variety of ways. Two white “Simple” chairs (one of several variations on the slat-backed side chair McMakin has developed over the years) face the front entrance. They are identical, except one has mirrors filling in the spaces that in the other chair are simply holes in the back. Seen in the right light, the mirrors reflect something grey and it matches the grey that is seen through the holes in the other chair and they look the same; seen from another angle, the two chairs look as though they were sitting in front of two different walls, one lighter and one darker. In neither case do we see the mirror as a mirror, but rather as some species of aperture, but it never stays the same, depending; one chair becomes a sort of commentary on the other, and as an essay on voids and solids, figure and ground.
Nearby, an early painted diptych features a young man in a mustache in one panel, and a mid-century modern bent plywood armchair in the other; the title is “Self-portrait with Jim” , and we are invited to share the artist’s sense of identification with a chair, which seems to be holding its arms out in an embrace, once we start to to see it as human. It looks a bit chubby, but well-meaning.
A further conflation of furniture, love, and sex, is featured in a series of four photographs around the corner. Like all the photography in the show (including three videos in their own viewing room), the piece features multiple views of the same thing, in this case a collection of dressers and drawers drawn up in formation in the center of a room. Two of the photographs only show the objects, ordinary enough, but two of the pictures, looking at the dressers from behind, reveal two grown men curled into the space besides the furniture, one lying on top of the other, as though hiding. The figures are awkward, uncomfortable-looking, and completely incongruous; one shows some backside skin above their pants, like a crouching plumber.
The crunching men couldn’t be more at odds with the mute, boxy items which surround them, and of course that’s the point. Every piece in the show takes familiar objects and gives them a subversive twist, highlighting the chasm between the ordinary and the strange, between what we think we know and what we don’t, and with the way the messiness of life keeps undermining our attempts to create order and control. And it’s that messiness, the messiness of sex and bodies and having to express some of our most intimate feelings in secret, that is the point of the photo series, which is literally a self-portrait, as McMakin and his boyfriend are the two figures. But it also a sort of confessional, McMakin telling us that by choosing furniture as a form of self-expression he is trying on one level to hide behind its mute, architectonic surface, revealing as little of himself as possible, while at the same time, wanting to be found out, so he can share his sense of being vulnerable, exposed, almost child-like.
McMakin, in fact, is all over the place in the show, interacting with his furniture. A video features him sitting down on one of his chairs, deadpan, while we try to resolve a set of impossible multiple viewpoints that are uncomfortably yoked together in the flickering, unstable image. Another photo series features him again seated and expressionless, in what looks like an empty room, but three other photographs taken at exactly the same instant from three other viewpoints shows his chair surrounded on three sides by curious onlookers like a Greek chorus, and we watch McMakin watching us trying to sort all of this out. Every viewpoint gives us another version of what was in fact one shared moment, and the only common element in every picture is McMakin himself and his chair; no one image is any more or less true than any other, and no one saw exactly what the camera saw, so we take our choice from a set of reality fragments.
The photography is fascinating, but my favorite pieces in the show were the furnishings, hitting us up the side of our conceptual head from a completely unexpected direction. McMakin has fun with the idea of the ordinary versus the precious, hanging four beat-up looking black thrift store chairs on the wall like sculptures, and placing on the floor alongside the same four chairs, but built by his craftsman (he owns a fine furniture business) as exact replicas, dents and painted bits and all. It’s these McMakin versions (which obviously come with a much higher dollar value) he invites us to sit on, to consider as “mere” functional objects, although they are of course high-priced contemporary art. Elsewhere a beautifully made table sits between two chairs, but some conflict is in progress: the table is half white, half black, and the two halves don’t fit together, the white half smaller than the black, it’s curlicue feet not quite touching the ground; it’s “dependent” on its black half, in an unequal relationship that makes one a bit queasy.
McMakin sums it up nicely in a drawing, hung nearby. Two identical side tables are depicted, one on the floor, the other on a low pedestal. “A table and a sculpture”, McMakin says in his label, spelling it out for us in plain English, but making his odd enterprise blurring the line between object and art no less enigmatic and intriguing.