Writings: Roy McMakin

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the inherency of meaning


“Architecture ought to be understood in terms of meaningful (symbolic) forms.”
Christian Norberg-Schultz, Meaning in Architecture
Rizzoli, 1981

Roy McMakin’s work intentionally and ambiguously straddles the typically distinct disciplines of furniture-making, art, and architecture. Many of his projects articulate aspects of all three fields simultaneously, while exhibiting his interest and facility in each. There is a simple profundity in these projects/artifacts that allows them to be examined from a multitude of directions: they are rich and pluralistic. The words he uses to discuss his work are also fertile: memory, longing, functional/non-functional, humanness, boundaries, ambiguity.

I come at his work with the simple observation that it is simultaneously ordinary and provocative, and I want to understand why it is so powerful. At first glance, his wood chairs seem like chairs we have experienced before: we recognize the vaguely arts-and-craft look; we know what the top rail will feel like in our hand when we grab it. We can predict the simple, stiff comfort experienced when sitting on it. But yet, something is amiss: The proportions seem subtly manipulated; the finish is likely to be in an unfamiliar color, or—if natural wood—may have an absurdly complex contrasting patch of wood in one of the components.

I believe the work is powerful because it conveys meaning. The forms, materials, finishes and placement of the work are a language. Or, in the vocabulary of semiotics (i.), they are signs or symbols that are used to communicate. Below, I’ll explore a couple of questions: What is the grammar of the language, i.e., what are the tools he uses to convey meaning? How is the meaning related to our perception and experience of his work?

McMakin begins on the subject of meaning himself, with characteristic straightforwardness: “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.” (ii.)

He talks about his work in plain terms, but is masterful in understanding how subtle manipulations of the “visual gestures” of mundane objects subvert the meaning typically assigned to them. A study of any one these pieces—with a simultaneous registering of one’s own reaction to it—points out that we each see and pick up on minute details in our built environment. We assign complex associative meanings through those details, which may vary for each person.

And, to be clear: it’s not typically possible to concisely articulate the meaning of a piece of art, furniture, or architecture. Words cannot describe the essence or the depth of the artifact. McMakin acknowledges this himself when he says, “Here is this thing that I find fascinating, and I’m showing you that it’s fascinating, but I can’t, completely. As much as I try to capture my fascination, there’s a doubt in my mind whether I can do it, even if I show you every speck of it.” (iii.) Nevertheless, we are often aware when an artifact triggers a reaction or association. A poured concrete wall and one made of painted tongue-and-groove boards have very different associations, and thus meanings.

However, it is possible to examine the physicality of the work, and the choices he makes in executing the work. They first create a language, and ultimately convey meaning. Here are some of the distinctive attributes of his work that together assemble his language:

Plainness and familiarity. McMakin is acutely fascinated by common domestic objects—especially furniture—and he chooses the simplest prototypes as the starting point in much of his work. There is often, but not always, an arts-and-crafts reference, which tends to be straightforward and proportionally substantial. This is not plainness-toward-elegance the way Shaker furniture leans. This is plainness with an emphasis on volume rather than line, and plainness that moves easily toward abstraction. His avowed appreciation of early 20th century architect Irving Gill is embedded in all of his work. Like Gill, whose buildings are composed of robust volumes and (increasingly throughout his career, abstract) reference to California Spanish traditions, McMakin explores a similar proportional attitude, and constantly references a style with which we’re all familiar.

Repetition and variations on a theme. Viewing either one of his multi-component installations or his body of work as a whole, it’s clear the forms and gestures he uses are often repeated. Often, there are subtle changes that have the effect of re-presenting the subject of his investigation. Simple, iconic domestic forms such as chairs and dressers are examined again and again, each slightly different.

In any of his multi-component installations, because the forms are familiar and ordinary, and because his interventions to the forms are few and isolated, what’s different is usually easy to see and provokes curiosity as to why he’s varied something. Our eyes dance back and forth, exercising our compare-and-contrast skills.

Looking at his body of work, part of this reason is the fascination that he describes above, and his repeated explorations around the edges of something that remains mysterious and elusive to him.

Placement. From his original Los Angeles furniture store “Domestic Furniture”, to his own apartment, to his museum and gallery installations, there is a conscious effort to place objects to highlight the relationship between them. The effect of his placement works hand in hand with the subject of variations on a theme, but is slightly different. With placement, he shows his interest in and ability to consider an entire interior environment. The placement of his objects always have an intentional relationship to the space they are in, with an understanding of the harmony and tension that can be achieved. (Artist Donald Judd was also obsessive about placement and context, and a comparison of these two artists could be elucidating.) Whereas his earlier work often placed furniture in restrained spaces with limited architectural detail in a classic figure/ground relationship, much of his current work is moving toward a more complex relationship between the architecture and the objects in it, with many elements (stairways, cabinetry, windows, doors) taking on as much object-character as the furniture.

Purposeful awkward junctions. Building on his themes of repetition and placement—all which emphasize the relationship between components—we can also look at the nature of these relationships. Usually, they are tense, and this tension can be seen at multiple scales. From the patches seen in the wood of individual objects (chairs, especially) to the intentionally awkward staircases in his architecture, the elements often spar with one another. In the most complacent of situations, they may simply express indifference to one another: In the Jensen Residence, he juxtaposes a floor-to-ceiling uninterrupted glass wall on one plane with a perpendicular plaster wall punctured by a small double-hung window with vertical muntins: Modernism meets Victorianism. The effect is clear, but we’re left with a sense of ambiguity, not knowing when this was built, or if we’re seeing the results of a renovation of an old house. (We’re not. McMakin remarks about his early furniture: “. . .my explicit aim was to create pieces where time is ambiguous.” (iv.) ) But in other spaces, the components physically touch and spar, each affecting the other, and none unscathed: This can be seen in the True House, where the stairway neither remains independent of its enclosure nor directly integrates with it.

Humanness. McMakin says: “Furniture is all about humanness, legs, arms chests, feet, handles, knobs. All this humanness without the person.” (v.) Often, he makes direct references to human form and human activity, with even chests of drawers taking on comically human characteristics and placed to suggest very human activities (such as sex). Other times, it’s more subtle, but nevertheless present: One installation of small tables and chairs, for instance, is done at a density that relates to a roomful of people at a cocktail party: groupings with space to maneuver between, but just. In this aspect of his work, there is a mischievous sense of humor.

The viewer’s perception. Through the use of these tools, McMakin explores viewer perception and experience. This may be said about any artist’s or architect’s or furniture maker’s work, of course: As soon as there is interaction with a viewer, patron or occupant, a dialogue is commenced. But I would argue McMakin is particularly successful at manipulating perception and experience within the context of meaning. Partially, this is from his own interest in phenomenology in his work. Phenomenology–based on the premise that each of us has a unique perception of the world, and that perception is constructed through our experience of events and objects—is a pertinent concept when thinking about his work. More than simply acknowledging that there will be a connection between the work and the viewer, he is interested in engaging with, understanding, and manipulating that connection. And he’s interested in investigating it again and again, gauging his own critical take and delight of his work, as well as perpetually reassessing the viewer’s response. In this capacity, he’s particularly suited to straddle disciplines, since both furniture-making and architecture especially have a functional component that must be addressed (and function is all about recognition and accommodation of the user).

Many of the other characteristics of his work described above also directly relate to our perception of the work. The plainness and familiarity make his work accessible. We have a foothold: yes, these pieces can be examined in purely formal terms (solid/void, scale, composition), but they also can be viewed with the experience we all have with furniture, and specifically furniture with specific stylistic cues. The same with repetition and variations on a theme: We quickly slip into a scenario of compare- and-contrast, looking for differences in the pieces and therefore starting to examine these pieces on a multitude of scales. We naturally move from viewing the whole piece(s) to focusing in on the small details that differentiate one piece from another. We are naturally drawn in.

It’s unusual to be able to engage in an artist’s work in so many different ways. Worthy of anonymous use (his furniture is simply well-crafted and comfortable), worthy of examination, and worthy of anything in between, he speaks with a unique voice and with a unique language. And, clearly, he still has a lot to say.

References and notes

The classic book on Roy McMakin: Baldessari, Darling, Eisner, Holte, McMakin. Roy McMakin: When is a Chair Not a Chair? New York: Skira Rizzoli Publications

i. Semiotics is the study of how meaning is created.

ii. Veltkamp, Joey, “Say Hello to Roy McMakin.” March 2, 2009, from http://www.joeyveltkamp.blogspot.com

iii. Holte, Michael Ned. (2009, Spring/Summer). “Roy McMakin: Forever Blurring the Markers of Art, Architecture, and Design”. Pin-up, Issue 6, pp 34.-40.

iv. Holte, Michael Ned. (2009, Spring/Summer). “Roy McMakin: Forever Blurring the Markers of Art, Architecture, and Design”. Pin-up, Issue 6, pp 34-40.

v. Veltkamp, Joey, “Say Hello to Roy McMakin.” March 2, 2009, from http://www.joeyveltkamp.blogspot.com

Thanks, Kim and Mitch, for the visual loan of your chairs. . . . .

Jenn Shore