Roy McMakin’s home truths pack an emotive punch in New York exhibition
‘My goal with this show was to use the new work and the old work to show that I’ve been doing the same thing for 40 years,’ says Roy McMakin, whose pieces range from full-scale houses to dressers he’s bought in vintage stores to bronze casts of vases found decades ago to photographs (sometimes of dressers) to other photographs (of other stuff) to drawings (frequently of dressers) to a general sense that he’s up to something deeply profound. The conceptual artist is talking from his San Diego home about his recently opened New York exhibition at Garth Greenan Gallery.
McMakin doesn’t really say, in this conversation, what that thing is. But he said it at the opening night dinner, held in the back room of the Chelsea gallery. What this writer recalls him saying is something like that he’s been exploring the relationship between objects and love, which seems right, because this writer saw the photograph titled 4 photographs of 4 sides of a green chest of drawers (cameras the same distance from each side) with Mike, and another green chest, and instantly wept.
A Sculpture of a Bed, 2018, by Roy McMakin, enamel on eastern maple. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery
The work at the show ranges from an untitled photograph from 1985 (the earliest piece on display), to a series of new white furniture objects that were made specifically for this show. ‘There is a conceptual positioning of my work, especially as it transfers into functional and non-functional objects, or items that gets used in ways such as sitting, or items that are more ponderous items that you think about,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s all just the same thing.’ He understands that it’s ‘perfectly useful and handy for humanity to categorise objects into objects that are art, and objects that are not art’, but also sees the shifting in categories as part of a ‘fluid and evolving discourse’.
It’s tempting to ask McMakin why a particular dresser is art and why another dresser might not be art, but it would be a silly question. The question, or at least the question that I’ve been thinking about in the ten years I’ve been thinking about McMakin’s work, is how he’s able to cast a dresser, or a vase or lamp, into a particular emotional valence. Along with the photograph – which is four shots of McMakin, his spouse Mike Jacobs (a scientist), and four dressers – there’s another piece produced last year, A Pair of Lamps with a Bronze Vase of a Vase I Bought a Long Time Ago.
One lamp’s stem is inside one vase. The other lamp is outside of the vase. The piece, as so many of McMakin’s pieces, feels like it encapsulates every moment of loss or sorrow and also comfort that people have ever felt. It turns out that the vase is a bronze cast of a vase that McMakin bought as a kid. ‘What I love about the original vase, which is somewhere packed away, is that they made that little lip on it,’ McMakin says. ‘Even as a kid it just broke my heart – it was so sweet.’
And that’s what McMakin’s work does. What it’s been doing for the last ten years that I’ve been aware of it, and the 30 years before then. It breaks your heart. But it also is suffused with a sense of comfort and joy and ease and togetherness. His work, as subtle and carefully articulated and perfectly composed as it is, can feel like an emotional punch, but it’s one that’s immediately leavened by a soothing sense, which is somehow. And this is where the magic of the formal composition, the colours, and that little lip of a vase that will break your heart come in – right there just after the punch.
The initial shock opens the viewer up. Maybe it’s with a sense of loneliness, or desire to fit in. But right after the shock, coming almost immediately, is the salve. The dresser is still here. The lamp is in the vase. The chair is strong enough. Love can be in objects. Particularly these ones. §