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STIR World | When the material is unabashedly camp

Thousands of buttons and bows and hundreds of patches. Materials get collected in abundance and then quickly used to create artworks that do not easily fit into the aesthetics of norms that hold the scaffoldings of a museum and gallery space. And yet, with a conscious effort to prod into the historical, social and cultural aspects of materials that are often perceived as ornate and decorative, New York-based artist Max Colby’s practice presents “a site for joy and reprieve, highlighted by lush detail and extravagant colour while in the same moment, a sombre viewing act,” reads her bio. The studio is not a second-hand store. A warehouse for material is farther from the truth. Two or three bins become a habitat for active materials that are segregated through Colby’s specificities about what materials already exist and which ones are to be bought to create artworks that are often perceived as over decorative. As permutations and combinations seethe within connections of bringing different beads, sequins and adornments together, Colby’s works are at once camp and not camp, ornate and not ornate – “highlighting a precarity and vulnerability through an investigation of ritual objects, most often, funereal”.

Revival, embrace, opulence – all are evoked as one sees Colby’s work that investigates temporality as a primary phenomenon. In her first solo show titled Revival, which was exhibited at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles, Colby presented They consume each other and Shrouds. They consume each other comprises 42 sculptures and 30 custom glass stands on a pedestal and investigates materials that direct toward referencing specific ceremonial and spiritual objects from American contemporary, American colonial, mid-century American materials and some European – highly decorative, highly embellished. The second body of work in the show is titled Shrouds, which was mostly made in 2022 and the base of all these works are quilts from the early to mid-20th century. The material used on this base is similar to They consume each other but is less organised. The title for this body of work came from the larger work, which is the size of a queen-sized coat. With an anthropomorphic quality that gets created because of the way they could be wrapped around the body, Shrouds evoke objects surrounding rituals surrounding death.

Colby’s early processes of artmaking included an engagement at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in the United States. At that time, she was primarily engaged in paper making and printmaking which later transformed into mixed media work and sculptural work. At the age of 14-15, sculptural works that were created as an assemblage of using found materials found a nascent belonging in connections that would later come to define the aesthetics of her practice. In a conversation with STIR, Colby shares, “I was making some sculptures and always enjoyed different mediums at that point in time but the substantial connections weren’t present. In making collages, a lot of materials were coming through in a two-dimensional way. Later, it was when I started working with found materials sculpturally, connections started taking shape. My language slowly developed and I began to simultaneously process both two-dimensional works and sculptural as well as installation works.”

Crewel embroidery also occupies a specific interest in Colby’s practice – an interest on which she actively began researching in 2012, before which she was already embedding different histories and connotations behind different materials in her works. “The embroidery work, if not the first, was definitely one of the earlier moments when I was becoming more intentional in processing and presenting my work,” states Colby. In terms of the thematic of the work, one encounters gender expression, sexuality, and religion intertwined with the unabashed materials that can often be seen as challenging aesthetics of what entails the white cube structures. On the question of negotiation within these institutions as desires and phallic structures reek out, she shares, “Early in my practice I was developing positions theoretically and academically within the work. As the work and myself have grown, I am less attached to the negotiation and more invested in what kind of provocations and investigations happen within the work. Less about leaving it to an answer than to a question. And that’s where the work of an artist is really the most important – in the framing of questions. I have opinions but I am not sure if I can position my thoughts through a visual language as in any sense of the ultimate. The work obviously comes from a perspective – my identity, the challenging of different social constructs through aesthetics and aesthetic movements. There are multiple angles where I am coming from, but I respect the intelligence of my viewers.”

The prevalence of mundane materials work in tandem with historical moments like crewel embroidery, early 20th century American quilting, circulation of toys in mid-20th century North America and so on. A closer look is achieved by these channels of investigation leading to a complexity that further leads to accessibility for the audience wherein they encounter extravagant installations created out of cheap fabrics. “For older materials like, for instance, specific styles that are from 1890-1910, I look at resale stores, estate sales, second-hand stores, people’s collections and many times I buy objects from party stores. A lot of times I also buy contemporary replications of certain things. The party stores are becoming my favourite place to buy materials and create my works,” shares Colby on the process of collecting these materials in context to what she is working on at a given point in time.

The process is obsessive, the objects are campy, audacious, and yet there is “a poignant presence” and “a moment for dissecting deeply embedded cultural conditions of normative gender, class, and power.” On looking at camp, Colby shares, “Partially, camp began to show up because of what the work had been doing for a while. Camp is also a fraught term and topic. My work also incorporates a certain kind of subversive mimicry and the materials are so cheap and tacky, that it becomes complex. To me, it sort of acknowledges that it is the antithesis of camp while also being camp at the same time, that the aesthetics really evoke something. There is humour inherent within it and as I get a range of responses, none bothers me.”

Colby is currently working on Opulence, curated by Jared Packard at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. She has earlier exhibited at Wave Hill, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling and Museum Rijswijk, among others.