Max Cleary: Breaking The Spectacle

Interview by Jon Feinstein | Photographs by Max Cleary

Max Cleary fuses photography, sculpture, and even video to break down how we see and experience contemporary industrial development. While he studied “Photo Media” at the University of Washington, he’s broadened his process to something murky and unclassifiable. His recent Vignettes exhibition Crushing Sensation, for example, included photographic prints hung near concrete slabs and plastic grids dangling in the center of this exhibition space. Standing among them, there is a sense of uncertainty –new construction settles into raw materials revealing a behind the scenes view into what Cleary describes as a disingenuous “spectacle.” I caught up with him following his recent exhibition to learn more about what’s driving his work.

Jon Feinstein: Are you a photographer? An artist who uses photography? “Who cares?”

Max Cleary: I guess that depends on what I’m working on, but the best answer I can give is that I think like a photographer, or at least how I think a photographer would.  I’m sure a lot of other people do this, but a lot of my thoughts come in the form of images and scenes.  So even though photography isn’t always the medium I work in (sometimes it’s not involved at all), it’s always a major piece of the foundation for my mental and physical process.  I’m a child of television and the internet, so outside of the fact that my formal education is in photography and image culture, I think that connection is just wired into me.

JF: “Image Culture” — can you elaborate?

MC: I’m referencing the importance and presence of images, and all media really, within our lives.  How we value images, how we fear them, adjust ourselves in regards to or in preparation for them, the information they give to us, the information they hide, the conceptual and physical foundations behind them, I try to mine through that presence in my practice.

JF: You were born right around the time that Photoshop launched. Do you think being a Photoshop (or internet) native impacts on how you see?

MC: I think the Internet has a big impact on how I see, not so much Photoshop.  I mean ever since I started following my interest in art I’ve had easy access to see what’s out there from a computer screen.  It made it easy to build an understanding of what I like and what I don’t. I know that it influences my humor too and my sense of humor really impacts how I perceive things.  It’s so easy to share things now and I often feel the urge to do so. It’s similar to photographer brain, where everywhere you are and everything you experience is a potential thing to shoot or put out into the world and that’s something I’m trying to separate from a bit.  Like to not let the concern with documenting or publicizing my experiences override the experiences themselves.

JF: Last I heard, you were sharing a studio with Joe Rudko. What impact, if any, has this had on your work? Do you guys collaborate at all?

MC: Joe actually recently moved into a bigger studio a few feet down the hall from me.  It’s a big boy space.  There’s a couch in there and everything.  You can do some pretty big dance moves in there.
So now I’m actually sharing the studio with Colleen RJC Bratton and the three of us have our cool little corner of the building we rent at. I haven’t actually collaborated with either Colleen or Joe yet, but being in close quarters as all of us work has been totally impactful.  I always enjoy observing someone who’s good at their craft and learning by watching.  We all work in really different ways with vastly different materials, but really that’s the perfect environment to be in.  I think that no matter what, you pick up pieces of your peers’ workflow and sensitivities when you’re around each other enough.

JF: What drives your specific selection of non-photo materials? Concrete versus plastic, versus other materials?

MC: Odds are if it looks cool I’ll probably want to use it, but it’s never that easy.  I factor in cost, accessibility, relevance to the idea I’m working with, conceptual importance, but a lot of it stems from basic innate interest.

JF: There’s not much writing on your website. No artist statement, etc, leaves reading your work wide open. Give me a haiku describing your work.

MC: You wish to know more.  I wonder where I should start.  Whoops, no more words left.
Just kidding, here are two:

Everything held up

flat like plywood-backed cut outs

I inspect the bones 

An image is made

and rather than let it be

I force it to fight

JF: In exhibition form, you engage deeply with the exhibition space — prints are not only on the wall, but displayed as hanging sculptures, pieces on the floor, etc. Why is this important to your work?

MC: I really like being entertained by art.  Regardless of whether it does more than be a piece of art, if there’s something inherently entertaining about a work that I’m experiencing, I have a good time.  If you can arrive at that entertainment point within the first few seconds of seeing something, I think that’s a huge success, so I try to include that sentiment in a lot of my work and exhibitions.  I think when you form a photograph into an object or take it off the wall and show it outside of its established home, it turns into a character.  It becomes an object that gets to occupy the same space as the viewer.  They have to deal with it in their space and change their field of view to get to it.  It’s a way of pushing viewers to interact more with the work, to be more conscious of themselves in the space, and also to create an environment that’s more dynamic and interesting to be in. I also use exhibition space to reinforce repetition and incompleteness, which are two of the main themes that drive my work.  I try to create a rhythm between the installation pieces and my images that forces them to compete with each other, where neither side is obviously more important than the other.  So in a sense every thing that I include in an exhibition is only part of a whole; while the pieces can visually stand alone, everything is complementary and you need to take it all into account equally to fully piece together what’s going on.

JF: You mention having a “long standing fascination with the built world.” Where do you fit into this personally?

MC: Well we spend most of our lives within it, surrounded by it, and dealing with it.
It’s vast and awe inspiring.  It’s simultaneously understandable and shrouded in mystery, a problem starter as well as the place we gather to fix that problem, physically astounding, almost unbelievable, but created by hands and hard work.
There’s just a lot to unpack about the structures and spaces around us and while it’s always been of interest to me, lately the built world has fueled so much of my work. I worked for about a year as a real estate photographer and recently my freelance work has granted access to a bunch of mid construction towers, apartments, and commercial buildings.  So I’ve been able to experience and observe a lot of what goes into development and the selling of spaces and that’s really what interests me. Everything from home staging to the marketing vocabulary to the presentation of the images I was taking, it’s all part of a giant production and the work I’m making is my way of mining through it all and figuring out what it means.

JF: In the text for your recent exhibition Crushing Sensation, you mention the “Spectacle.” I pretty obviously jump to Guy Debord. Are you a fan?

MC: Yeah absolutely.  Society of the Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared have been immensely influential to my thinking about art, images, photography, and representation in general. I’m really grateful to have had friends pass those texts along to me.  We could get really into it, but I’ll sum it up by saying that between the two texts the ideas that we no longer have real experiences, that we live for and through representations, and that digital means overtake the importance of the original they reference have had major influences on my work and life.

JF: What’s behind the title “Crushing Sensation”?

MC: I was reading about phantom limb sensations and in one account a person noted that they occasionally felt a crushing sensation where their amputated limb used to be.   The title connects that phantom sensation with the experience of witnessing demolitions and new developments occur within residential neighborhoods.  When the familiar structure is taken away there’s a visual and emotional afterimage that remains in the vacant plot of land.  When a new structure goes up, it asserts itself and begins to overtake what remains of the previous inhabitant.  I feel like the crushing sensation is both the body learning to deal with losing a part of itself as well as the ghost of that limb fighting to stay.  The neighborhood is the body, a home is the limb. What we feel when one leaves is our crushing sensation.

JF: What or who (art or otherwise) has had the biggest influence on your practice?

MC: Anyone who works hard, is loving, and cares for themselves and others is an inspiration to me.  My friends, family, and the communities I find myself in are for sure the biggest influence on me.  Shoutout to my friends and family.  You my rock, my heart, my cinnamon apple(s).

JF: Who are you listening to right now? What’s your “making work” playlist look like?

MC: Usually anything I can bop my head to, I can’t work to mellow music.  It changes a lot, but my go to’s no matter what I’m doing are: The Exquisites, Culture Abuse, Young Guv, Shlohmo, J Cole, Isaiah Rashad, Angel Du$t, Dude York, Fucked Up, and
the occasional Drake.  I just figured out the power of making playlists in Spotify, so lately it’s all over the place.  Some new ones I’m jamming on are Mick Jenkins, Lock, Super Unison, Mannequin Pussy.  It’s everywhere.

JF: The dreaded “What’s next” question: do you have any exhibitions coming up that you’d like to plug?

MC: Yeah!  In February I’ll be in a show at AXIS in Pioneer Square with Sofya Belinskaya and Alex Boeschenstein who are both really talented artists and awesome people.  Then in April, Alex, myself, and Jackson Baker Ryan will showing work at 4Culture as our collective which is called CACHÉ.

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