After the success of last year's Oregon Biennial, Jennifer Gately—the Portland Art Museum's newly appointed curator of Northwest art—will turn her focus to a series of installations showcasing contemporary local art. Along with the Jubitz Center's program of installations, this series, called APEX, continues the museum's renewed commitment to exhibiting contemporary art. And yet, visiting the actual space seems to undermine that sentiment. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the main building's fourth floor, the area dedicated to APEX is disappointingly small. Where the Jubitz Center's installation space resides at the top of the Mark Building, the logical destination of a tour through the museum's modern and contemporary art holdings, APEX requires visitors take a far more circuitous route. If not for the wall text identifying the space as separate from the encroaching permanent collection of regional art, visitors would likely miss that they had entered another gallery altogether.
In spite of the location and space of APEX, its potential for displaying vital art from the area is undeniable. For instance, the art of Portland transplant Chris Johanson will be featured in the gallery later this month. Unfortunately, the series got off to a rough start with a frigid and spare show from Seattle-based artist and designer Roy McMakin. Trained at the Portland Museum Art School three decades ago, McMakin has built a body of work that uses furniture and interior spaces to explore the tension between form and function. In an age when stylized surface is often privileged above practical application, McMakin's creations blend the lines between art object and mundane household furnishings. It's an approach that has paid off well for McMakin's commercial ventures as a designer. His plainly named Domestic Furniture Company, formerly based in Los Angeles, has designed furniture and interiors for a host of celebrities, including the set for Jay Leno's late-night talk show.
The four untitled works in the APEX installation—all made specifically for the exhibition— revolve around slat-back chairs positioned in various relationships to panels. In one work, two chairs foreground two panels. In another, the two shortened front legs of a chair rest on a raised platform. The chairs are reductive, even iconic, but their contours are so rigid that they hardly seemed designed for the human body. And the color palette that McMakin employs is limited to a bright white, a light brown tone, and the exposed grain of the alder wood with which the chairs were fabricated. The formal qualities of the works—each designed by McMakin, but created by hired craftsmen—are so austerely minimal that the significance of the pieces springs from a web of relationships between colors, dimensions, and art historical references.
In a sense, the works' materials seem directly inspired by their surroundings. The natural grains of the alder mimics the gallery's hardwood floors, while the pristine white enamel echoes the space's walls. As the artist paints the chairs the same tones as the panels that support them, he implies that they belong to the work, forming a unified whole with the panel. The monochromatic treatment creates a tension between painting and sculpture, as the three-dimensional chair seems to flow out of the two-dimensional panel. This effect is most pronounced in the work in which the front legs of a slat-back chair rest on a pedestal. Coated in the same white enamel as the platform, the chair's legs appear to sink into its surface, prompting a viewer to question the objects' materials.
While the geometric composition of McMakin's chairs references a whole cadre of minimalist artists, the works in APEX lack the visual impact necessary to coax a viewer into scrutinizing them. In the past, McMakin has re-signified a piece of furniture's intended use—using two interlocking chairs to create a nightstand, for example—or recreated furnishings from his grandparents' home in Oklahoma. By subverting an object's purpose, the artist more capably recasts the quotidian chair as an aesthetic object. And replicating objects from his grandparents' house is a lovely meditation on memory—there's something very affecting about such a literal attempt to capture what is irretrievably past. By uniformly painting each item gray, from a chest of drawers to some very antiquated lamps, they appear as dismal shells of the original furnishings. It's an admission of futility built into the project itself. But the works in the APEX installation falter without such engaging conceptual conceits. Instead, these forms about form are much too drab to inspire the kind of dialogue McMakin seems to pursue.