Max Colby visited by Paolo Arao

I met Max Colby while on an artist residency at The Studios at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA this past April. I was captivated by his work the first time I saw it and instantly felt a connection. I was happy to meet another artist working with textiles from a queer perspective. Max’s work straddles the line between representation and abstraction. His work appears gaudy and excessive, but there’s something rich embedded beneath his opulent surfaces. I paid a visit to Max’s studio in Bushwick a month after we returned to the city from our residency at MASS MoCA. 

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and when did you move to Brooklyn? Where did you go to school?

I moved to New York City six years ago immediately after receiving my BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University in 2012. I grew up between West Palm Beach, Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How did you start working with textiles and embroidery? Can you elaborate on the specific embroidery technique(s) you use in your process?

I began working in textiles in my senior year of college, 7 years ago. I was experimenting with very fragile collograph plates for printing. The plates were figurative and their destruction through the printing process referenced a certain degradation and malleability of the self and identity, but the work was missing something. An introductory textiles course opened up the exploration of embroidery in this work and turned into a series of several dozen prints each customized with embroidered accoutrements. I’ve been obsessed with embroidery and textiles ever since.

The technique I primarily use when embroidering is called Crewel embroidery, which arguably began in the 11th century with the Bayeux Tapestry, but became increasingly popular during the Victorian era. It was used on clothing, furniture, and innumerable domestic and personal objects. It’s a very full and rich form of embroidery, comprised mostly of different iterations of long and short stitches. The history of this specific technique is always interesting to me as its function, execution, and accessibility are emblematic of points of contention regarding gender equality, capital, class, and power while providing an intoxicating desirability. 

Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

I’ve been working on a series titled They Consume Each Other, which is comprised of many small sculptures resembling religious relics or ceremonial objects. I’m simultaneously expanding a series of embroideries on original photographs from gay porn magazines. I like to move between several modes of production. Embroideries and flat works influence the development of sculptural work and vice versa. They Consume Each Other currently has 20 pieces, though I’m several dozen away from my goal. I’m interested in developing the work towards an immersive, participatory installation as well as exploring their performative potential. Lately, I’ve been envisioning them littered in vacant churches and homes. 

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I’m interested in exploring some pretty big questions on sex and power structures. For instance, the limited representation of gender, race, and physicality in the LGBTQIA+ community which follows a larger discussion in our culture about who’s life is valued and idealized. Nearly all of the magazines I utilize keep their models within a certain type. They’re white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and masculine men. Whom are considered the standard bearers of beauty and attractiveness across queer communities. Embroidering with extreme richness over these images aims to disrupt that narrative while provoking the viewer to consider what’s behind these desires. These various elements act as echoes. Can one get past that pure desire?

There’s a lot in conversation here, but my hope is that the work can provide a new frame for conversation on these issues. Often the work doesn’t go there for people and it’s simply visible, queer work. Or maybe it’s a new, fantastical way of seeing materials they often associate with domestic work experienced through their family unit. If my work can provide a fresh lens for someone grappling with sexuality, representation or identity, that’s incredible.    

What persons/places/things have had the most influence for you and your work?

I grew up in a family that loves art. My dad collected outsider art, and I was always taking extra art and music courses outside of school and in the summer since I was very young. I think that early creative development made a big impact on my work as an artist today. When I started to get serious as I got older, artists like Nick Cave and Cindy Sherman were huge influences on me and my understanding of artistic practice and its potential. Recently, shows like Trigger at the New Museum in 2018 and Queer Threads curated by John Chaich, to name a couple, introduced me to a slew of queer artists whom have influenced my practice. 

Can you elaborate on your use of decorative pattern and color in your work? Are your decisions purely formal or is there a conceptual underpinning behind your choices?

I like to play with blind desire in my work and strive for lush, opulent effects when working. There’s a back and forth between formal and conceptual elements. In sculptural work, I keep my choices limited, i.e., only collect European or American floral fabrics and trims, typically in colonial or Victorian styles. When I embroider, I stick to traditional Crewel embroidery and copy designs from historic textiles. The materials alone carry a great deal of conceptual backing. They directly invoke conversations on class, capital, desire, domesticity, disparity, and gender and I’m interested in subverting those associations. After making those decisions, I leave a lot of room for play. Color, form and composition are all done organically – nothing is pre-planned.

I'm really interested in the multitude of ways that Queerness is being represented by artists now. Do you consider your work to be abstract or representational or both? Is this important for you?

Queerness to me is open, fluid, evolving, resistant. It’s important to me that the work reflect that. The fantastical, maximal, nature of the work leaves it somewhere between the two.

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

I mostly listen to music. Lately I’ve been playing Erykah Badu, Cardi B, and Grace Jones in the studio. Making work is so much about play for me, and I laugh at it a lot of the time. It’s hard to avoid when putting fabric flowers next to Victorian brocade fabric shaped like a phallus. Making also helps mitigate and redirect some strong anger and frustration I have towards injustice and inequality in society. What I have going in the background usually reflects those things.

What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I work full time in my studio and typically work morning to night. Most of my work is pretty time consuming and almost always hand sewing, so I set production goals. I’m an obsessive worker and can lose track of time, but I try to stand and stretch every hour or so, and on the flip side keep my studio time under 50 hours a week. At a certain point my eyes give out.   
Writing and research are also important parts of my practice, which I end up doing on days I’m not producing.  

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I recently finished Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler and Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. I also keep Queer (Documents of Contemporary Art) by David Getsy always handy in my studio. 

Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self?

It’s easy to get lost, don’t waiver from your values. 

For additional information about Max visit his website or instagram.

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