The dozen or so objects—call them sculpture, furniture, or something poised indeterminately in between—included in Roy McMakin’s recent exhibition at Garth Greenan Gallery for the most part proceeded from a superficially simple line of inquiry: What happens to a conventionally functional artifact when that artifact has its conventional function tampered with? It’s a question with which McMakin—a Wyoming-born artist and craftsman who studied at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s with teachers such as Allan Kaprow and Manny Farber and who today also works both as an architect and a commercial furniture designer—has spent years engaging. It’s also one situated within a constellation of philosophical inquiries that the world of contemporary art has in recent years increasingly turned its attention toward: the matter, as the editors of October put it in a recent issue devoted to the subject, of “materialisms.” McMakin’s constructions on display here were in most instances bits of found vernacular furniture denatured by being placed into physical, and metaphysical, dialogue with objects and forms made by the artist; they asked sneakily complex questions about the conditions of “things,” both in relation to, and independent of, human apperception and use. And at their slipperiest they evoked, in a rather unassuming and plainspoken way, the “broken tools” of so much interest to present-day interpreters of the Heideggerian ontology of objects: pieces of “equipment” that usually withdraw from us into anonymous utility, but when rendered inoperative instead announce themselves anew, estranged from conditions of ready use and revealing a certain, if opaque, mode of presence.
At first glance, the exhibition—McMakin's first in the city in nearly a decade—had the look of an absurdist home decorator's shop, abounding in artifacts in which function was deferred or denied. A stocky wooden table, for example, was flipped uselessly on its edge and married to a finely finished modernist flat-front bureau in Chest of Drawers with Table, 2016, while in A Table with 90 Coats of Paint, 2016, a sturdy dining table, glistening under dozens of layers of ebony enamel, was set atop a mirrored pedestal, its legs dangling ineffectually above the floor like those of a toddler perched on a dining-room chair. The eponymous object forming the basis of Entry Table, 2016, was rendered inoperative through its twinning with a white doppelganger, inverted and set on its surface like a ghosted afterimage, while in Untitled (with cabinet) of the same year, McMakin enfolded a small blue metal table within a kind of minimalist bracket hung on the wall, straitjacketing its utility in a sort of wordless, three-dimensional recapitulation of Magritte's famous “pipe.”
Though many of McMakin’s investigations into the conditions of things and our relationship to them are grounded in such juxtapositions between the found and the made, he also looks to trouble the gaps between use- and exchange-value by deploying categorical nuances in the way he positions his own work. Untitled (a table that looks like a sculpture), 2016—an unadorned rectangular end table on a low plinth with a simple round bowl set on it, all coated in a precisely laid coat of cerulean enamel—greeted visitors to the show. Perhaps an oblique nod to Table bleue, Yves Klein’s foray into form-blurring furniture design in the early 1960s, the work also made clear, via its title, one type of potential ontological trajectory: not that of a sculpture enacting tableness, but first and foremost a table, here one impersonating a sculpture. Yet hanging only a few feet away was Untitled (another wall sculpture of a drop-leaf table), 2013, a three-panel form painted in two shades of white and attached to the wall by improbably stubby legs that suggested something from the hand of Robert Irwin. In this case a sculpture that looked like a table, rather than the other way around, the work represented a conceptual oscillation that only furthered McMakin’s core project: to make objects that don’t just call into question our preconceptions of what they are and should be, but also destabilize their innate conditions—a program fueled by a “termite art tendency,” to use a phrase coined by his teacher Farber, chat “goes always forward eating its own boundaries.”