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born in: Helena, MT
lives in: Seattle
I'm an artist/blogger/writer/curator in Seattle.

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Design Arts



Design Arts


Say hello to Roy McMakin

A Door, 2003

Hi Roy!

Q: My introduction to your work was, "How Do I Know How You Know?" at Seattle Art Museum in 1999. I wish I could go back and spend some time with that show now. You show at James Harris Gallery(Seattle) as well as Quint Contemporary Art (La Jolla) and Matthew Marks Gallery (New York). Thinking back on the past 20+ years, is there a particular show that you're especially proud of?

A: No one has ever asked me that question, so I might as well be specific. As I recall my shows, the following ones pop up as the ones I really liked: my first undergraduate show at UCSD in 1979, I made my first table for that show, the piece was in my MOCA/Henry show. My second show at Mark Quint in 1986, I think much of what I have done since was in that show. The one you mention, "How Do I Know How You Know" at SAM, I really challenged myself (and maybe a few others that were paying attention at the time) with that show. I was asked by the contemporary art curator at the time at SAM, Trevor Fairbrother to do a show where I would display some of my furniture with paintings from the collection. But he agreed to let me do something else. It was a very big deal for me to get to do that. I also fondly recall my second show at Marc Foxx in 2000, "When Is a Door a Jar". It had a variety that I like to strive for in my shows, I loved my little geranium paintings in it.

How Do I Know How You Know, 1999

Also my MOCA/Henry survey in 2003/2004 because it had most everything I ever did in it. "Chest" with Marc Selwyn in LA because it more overtly moved emotionality into my furniture. And of course "A Slatback Chair" at San Diego Sate University, it was my most scientific show. And there was “Residential Line”, my first show at Matthew Marks, but maybe I put too much into it. And I really like a recent show at Quint of a white table and a black table. But right now I think I am most proud of my show last Fall with Jim Harris, "Purplish". I think it existed in a tense place between clarity and emotionality. I feel I achieved a tension between matter-of-factness and celebration and scrutiny. And I also feel it reflected my long term relationship with furniture and functionality within the realm of art. Functionality wasn't the centerpiece, but it was more a psychological tool that helped express what I was expressing. I find the poignancy contained within the dichotomy of use/useless to be a theme that resonates more and more with me.

◄ Untitled, 2008

► 2 Photographs of Both Sides of a Fragment of a Blouse That Wasn't Completed , 2008 (detail)

Q: Purplish felt very sentimental (in a good way), personal and slightly vulnerable. It's my favorite show of yours. Have you read Jeffry Mitchell's great review about it in La Especial Norte #3.

A: I definitely wanted vulnerable and personal, I don't see it as sentimental, for me really more the opposite of that, I was trying to take the gauze off the lens of some memories, hopefully making them very present. I was trying to convey the potential for a redemption through looking. In a way I think I was trying to both give power to, and remove power (a readjustment I suppose) from these objects by staring them down. Perhaps what you are calling sentimental I see more as longing. Which is a very hard thing to stare down. It takes you to some places that you can't fix through the normal channels. I just read Jeff's piece about the show. I don't really know how to respond to it. I was moved by his words about my efforts. I wasn't raised Catholic, or even religious, so I wasn't specifically doing what he said, but I was addressing issues of family, pain, home, redemption, visibility and invisibility etc., which I guess is one way Jeff sees those issues. Jeff is the best.

When a Door is a Jar, 2000

Q: You just got back from London for a widely publicized opening. How did you end up working with Established & Sons? What does the title, "Another Kountry" refer to?

A: They sent me a nice email out of the blue and we had a conversation which led to this show and more. The title is really just taken from a chair named "A Kountry Chair". It was Alasdhair Willis from Established & Sons who proposed the title and I liked it. I assume he was referring to me being American, with a very American sensibility. I liked that, but I also liked that it is a title that has been used (with out the misspelling) in literature and song and many other things I'm sure. It describes both a physical place and a state of mind.

◄ 4 Drawer Chest, 2008 ► Detail

Q: You must have been pretty excited to receive that email! I wasn't that familiar with Established & Sons and I asked my über-design friend,Strath, about them. He said, "...not to swoon or anything, but it would be difficult to have more design cred than they do.

A: I think they are greatly respected in the design world, and I respect them. They have treated me really well and they are smart folks. What more could a girl want?

Untitled (A Chest of Drawers and a Daybed that fit Together), 2004

Q: Your work destroys the modernist tenet, "Form follows function." and turns the statement "Ornament is a crime." into a question. When you create, do you follow any personal rules?

A: I don't know if my work destroys the idea of form following function, I think much of my furniture and architecture is very comfortable, which I would think could only happen if one is mindful of that issue. And I think in one sense everything has an ornamental component within itself. I don't really have any "rules" but I have been thinking about these issues for a long time. A performance piece I did in 1981 was called "Love in a Charles Eames Chair". Which I think was about these issues, with the added question of whether it was a good idea to fuck in an Eames chair. I guess the place that I got to about this issue is that everything has to look like something. I think artists are essentially focused on this issue. It’s an interesting thing to think about, as it is so obvious it could bite you. I do think some of the creators of modernism felt they possibly were on to something that transcended that issue, that essentially they were making stuff that approached invisibility. But of course they didn't. It was just stuff like all the other stuff. Filled with meaning through the visual gestures. What I have come to believe is that the goal is to show love within the requirements of things being visible. I think that is the stuff we want to look at, regardless of when it was made.

◄ Nightstand, 1999
► Untitled (Writing Table and Chair) 2000

Q: I guess more specifically what I meant is that if the "function" of a dresser is to hold things, and you create a dresser whose drawers can't open, haven't you destroyed (transcended) function?

A: I think the idea of form following function is about not having extra bits within a design, everything exists for the common goal of being a chair (meaning an object that holds someone in a seated position) and nothing else gets in, like a cute curvy leg or whatever. I guess by doing something as simple as making it not function as a chair (or a chest) I have moved the conversation from design to art. I think this gets into issues of language and how we categorize them both within ourselves and our culture. What do you do with a chest that the drawers don't work, I think the only answer is to think about it. But I am really then interested in how those objects either contain emotions or elicit an emotional response. I think my entire body of work can be read through the filter of these four words: functional/non-functional/formal/memory. I think when these four notions dialog you can end up with something beyond them, the poetry/emotionality thing.

Love and loss, 2005

Q: You were one of 33 artists included in Baja to Vancouver. You are the only local artist included in the Olympic Sculpture Park. You've had solo shows at both Seattle Art Museum. (1999) and Henry Art Gallery (2004). Despite all this, I still feel that you're under-celebrated in your hometown. Do you ever feel that way?

A: Gosh, I think the answer I should put out there that I will not regret saying is “no”. But I think there is a longer answer that might be distilled into “maybe”. First, I think one has to respond that humanity is filled with a lack of celebration for itself, and generally artists might be luckier than most in getting celebrated. And I really don't like to be celebrated in a birthday party kind of way. But I think every artist might feel in greater or lesser degree that they aren't acknowledged enough, I think it is an occupational hazard. But I also think there is a really complicated issue involved, which is what I will call the "carrying capacity" for artists within a community. I don't think it is possible for Seattle to celebrate all of the artists who live here. There just isn't the support within the broader community for that. So what's an artist to do, go off elsewhere to do stuff, which I of course have. But I don't think this is necessarily because my ego needs to show in NY or wherever. If I could get enough work in Seattle, both to support my creativity and my finances I would just do stuff here. I don't like flying very much. I am so intrigued by the photographer Robert Adams who doesn't fly, or even drive much, makes work close to where he lives (Astoria, OR), but shows all over the world. But it has never seemed like that was going to happen for me. What I do involves commissions. There really have been only a small group of folks who have provided support for me in Seattle. But I am also mindful that that is more than many other artists based here get. I think Jeff Mitchell is an amazing artist, a real visionary who I have learned much from. As have so many others in this city. I think of him as a treasure of the city, Mayor Nickels should give him a big fancy gold key to the city. I think he should have a piece in every art collection in the city. But that isn't the case. And even if he did, how many collections are there in the city, and how much would the collectors pay for his work. I have been around several art tours that come through Seattle from other cities. They are usually collectors, and several have expressed their surprise that local artists are typically not represented in major collections in this city. They have said that one of the things they find interesting it to see who locally is collected by the folks who collect well known national and international artists, and they don't tend to see that here. And of course there are exceptions, such as the Trues and the Behnkes, and others. But realistically how many local artists could they support.

Duffy Residence, 2005

Q: I couldn't agree more about Jeffry! I think he really falls into the under-celebrated category as well. I can't wait for a McMakin/Mitchell show to materialize. I think a lot of folks would be really interested in seeing what you two would create together.

A: I would like to do a show with Jeff. There has been some talk of one, but nothing has happened yet. I would hope it would happen, if it happens, in a non commercial space so we don't have to worry about it making money, as I think it should be about something else. We did do that little performance thing together (along with my spouse Mike Jacobs and Suzzy Roche), maybe we should do more of that kinda thing. Jeff is a big ham as you know.

Untitled (Slatback Chairs) 2002

A: Your gallery work frequently includes re-imaginings of furniture, most frequently chairs. Out of all the possible objects, why chairs?

A: Actually there tends to be only a chair or two that I keep refining. I think chairs are interesting because people sit on them, their scale is more or less a given. I really, really, really like furniture. I always have, for as long as I can remember. I think I must have bonded with it somehow, someway, for some reason as a kid. It goes back so far I don't really know any other reality. Furniture is all about humanness, legs, arms, chests, feet, handles, knobs. All this humanness without the person. I keep thinking I'm going to figure out why I like it so much, but I never seem to. I suppose this is why I am not a designer, I am trying to make furniture do something else for me.

◄ Untitled (a small chest of drawers with one drawer that doesn't fit)
 Two Chests, One With No Knobs. One With Slightly Oversized Drawers, 2000

Q: "Untitled (a small chest of drawers with one drawer that doesn't fit)" is one my favorite pieces of yours. How autobiographical is it?

A: Thank you. I think of it as more of a self portrait, or more specifically an object with strong personal resonance. I did a piece 7 or 8 years ago that was two chests, one where the drawers didn't have knobs, the other all of the drawers were a little bit too big to fit in the case. My private title for that piece was "self portrait". I see the newer one you mention as demonstrating increased psychological health.

Q: Was that the first time a piece served as a self-portrait?

A: No, it has been popping up for a long time. There is a little gouache painting I did 25 years ago of a chair and my then boyfriend. It is titled "self portrait with Jim". I suppose I could have just stopped there.

self portrait with Jim, 1984

Q: You walk a thin line between high art and design. When folks see your furniture in a gallery, they don't quite know how to interact with it. I've seen the same thing happen when folks experience your furniture in more personal settings like a home. It's almost as if you have to tell them, "That's art – please don't touch." or "That's a chair – you can sit in it." Have you found the same thing?

A: Sure, I don't know if I am specifically trying to set those reactions up, but I think they are part of what I do. Maybe they come about because of my very personal relationship to furniture, maybe I don't understand the boundaries. And it seems to also be similar to the way people react to me. Should they touch me or just stare at me confused. Honestly, I think I just make kinda straight forward stuff but folks seem to question what it is, and I think I'm fairly straightforward, but folks seem to think I'm weird or cold or whatever and don't know what to make of me.

Jensen Residence, 2007

Q: I love that an unintended consequence of your work is that it makes people question something so completely familiar as furniture.

A: That's what happens when you share secrets of old friends and yourself with others I guess.

Q: At the end of the day, is there one label that has more personal relevancy for you? Artist/Designer/Architect?

A: Artist, sometimes I design things or make architecture, but I am an artist.

Untitled (from a Month of Drawing in the Cursive Style!) 2002

Q: What does 2009 look like for you? Any special projects or shows you (or Domestic Furniture/Architecture) are working on?

A: I am doing a very sweet and fun project for my pal Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale, we are designing her new space on Capitol Hill, and really enjoying it. And I am working on some ideas for production furniture with Established & Sons. And doing a lot of studio art, but not for any specific show -- what a pleasure!

A Pair of Lamps with a Bronze Joan, 2008

Thanks so much, Roy! Seattle is a much more interesting place with you here!

Right back at you, Joey.

◄ Kountry Chair, 2009 ► detail

[All images courtesy of Roy McMakin.]


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Say Hello to Nayland Blake

Feeder 2 (1998), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

Q: In a society that needs to put labels on people, you seem to live in between worlds. During different periods of your life you have self-identified as black and other times as white.  You're neither gay or straight. Do you think those experiences makes you an insider into more worlds or an outsider to the world at large?

A: I'm more interested interested in the spaces between worlds and words, the borders, the thresholds.  I'm disappointed when people treat the labels they've adopted as some sort of gospel. To me uncertainty is the most invigorating state, but for most of our society, even those self declared alternative groups, uncertainty is a thing to be shunned and feared.  Because I'm willing to take that on, I think that I am less at home in more places, but I hope that I can act as a kind of connective agent, making different groups aware of each other and their similarities.

Coat (2001), Collaboration with AA Bronson
Image via Elisabeth Kley
Q: Does it ever create an 'identity crisis' in your work?

A: I think my work succeeds to the extent that it makes people question their preconceived categories.  Since that's not the usual modus operandi for much art work, especially identity-based work, some people may interpret that as a crisis of identity.  I don't. I make the work to find out what I think or feel about a particular thing, not to express some notion about identity.

Joe Dallesandro as Augustin (1994), image via Matthew Marks

Q: You've brought your childhood (bunnies, gingerbread houses, puppets) into your adult life as a way of exploring themes of sex, control and identity. Can you talk about that?

A: Any piece I make starts out as a kind of hazy idea of a thing I'd like to see, and it's through the making, the wrestling with the material, that I come to some understanding of why I wanted to see it in the first place.  I'm always asking myself “why does this feel right to me?”  The “this” in that sentence may be piece of artwork I'm looking at, a book I'm reading or a sexual activity.  I try to investigate my emotions and responses through making things.  So when I do that, the trail usually leads back to childhood.  There have been times where I've gotten a little tired of that in the work, where I start to suspect that the child-like nature of the imagery has become a gimmick.  That's one of the things I'm grateful to photography for. It's hard to be childish in a photograph.  At least it is for me.

Bunnyhole II (2007) image via James Wagner

Q: I had always assumed your use of rabbits was primarily about fecundity. I read that you are also "... using the rabbit as this metaphor for something that's sort of in-between race. Of indeterminate race. That came from thinking about Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily. Those stories are West African folktales that came into this country with slaves. They're like the progenitor of Bugs Bunny. So in thinking of my own racial identity, I kept sort of using this rabbit metaphor."  The rabbits seem to be able to hold many ideas for you. What do they mean to you today?

A: I kept coming back to them so often over the years because their trails of reference led in so many different directions.  It goes back to what I was saying above.  I get the idea of a certain kind of bunny thing I'd like to see and then having worked on it I start asking why was that image in my head.  These days they seem a little exhausted for me as a subject matter, so there really haven't been so many bunny pieces in the past four years or so.  I'm sure they'll come back at some point, but they haven't for a while.

Daily 1.9.05 (2005), image via artist

Q: If I had to chose a favorite piece of yours, it would probably be Coat(followed closely by Starting Over). Coat was such a great convergence of your dominant themes. Is there a piece or show that you feel especially represents you?

A: Thanks for saying that.  I've always tried to make the work so that one thing doesn't sum it all up.  I think I'm best represented in the range of the work, the fact that there's representational drawings, and abstract found object sculptures, and text pieces and performances and that it all makes more sense the more you see it in combination. I like it when people investigate the work and see the different currents in it.  My favorite artists are those I see that kind of richness in and it's the thing I aspire to for myself.  It's something that I think has been lost in artists' training which seems to be focused on forcing people to pick one trope and to stick to it endlessly.

Video still from Gorge (1998), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

Q: You were 21 and living in New York when AIDS hit. A year later, you moved out to San Francisco to get your MFA. Did living in those cities during the early 80s have a big impact on your art and politics?

A: Just two corrections:  I was attending college in upstate New York in '81 and went to grad school in Southern California after that. I didn't make it to San Francisco until 1984.  But yes the AIDS epidemic certainly had a huge impact on all of us.  I remember a gay man in LA trying to talk me out of relocating to San Francisco after school by telling me that “the all have AIDS up there”.  So the fear of the unknown was palpable.  The man who gave me my first job when I did move north was one of the first people I knew directly with AIDS.  I was not connected to the New York response however.  It's hard to say that AIDS “hit” New York in 81.  Truth is, very few people were talking about it then even though there was growing media response. The thing that AIDS did in the artworld, was that it changed people's perception of what “Gay Art” could be.  Up to that point, the only art that was recognizably gay was either beefcake or camp, neither of which were thought of as serious subjects for artists.  It was the rise of both the work of mourning and the work of activism that changed people's perceptions of what gay artists had to say. That happened in many different places worldwide, and it's something that's effects are still being seen today.

Video still from Starting Over (2000) image via artist website

Q: What do you think the biggest misconception people have about you is?

A: Wow, I kind of don't know how to answer this. Usually people don't tell me so much what they're thinking of me, so it's hard to tell when they're off. I suppose it's that I think I know what I'm doing, that the work is the expression of some preconceived idea that I'm trying to deliver to an audience.  Really I'm just thrashing around in the middle of it.  But that's a misconception that people tend to have about art making in general and less about me. I guess certain critics have assumed that I was cynical at certain times, and that has rankled. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Server (2000), image via Matthew Marks Gallery

Q: You've recently completed a 25 year retrospective.  Do you feel you can breathe a little easier now? Or does it create a sense of urgency to make more work?

A: Today's blank sheet of paper is just as terrifying as the one I sat in front of twenty years ago. The only difference is that I have a bit more experience with saying to myself: OK, if you commit to being in the midst of this terror, the odds are good that you'll learn something in the process.  I was very happy to see that group of works brought together, because we did it in a way to make people reevaluate what they thought of what I was doing.  It was very nice to see the way things spoke to each other across the years, but that doesn't change things in the studio.  There are no guarantees; we have to face each new thing fresh and with as much honesty as we can muster.   


Nayland Blake is represented by Matthew Marks (New York), Fred(London) and Gallery Paule Anglim (San Francisco). He's popped up a few times recently here in the Northwest. TJ Norris curated him into .meta in Oregon and Volume (Robert Crouch/Ed Patuto) included him in their recent show Scores at Lawrimore Project. Two of his pieces (including Joe Dallesandro as Augustin) are currently on view at The Frye Museum as part of The Puppet Show.


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