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.

Joe Rudko | Folding time in lines and layers

Interview by Jon Feinstein | Photos by Megumi Shauna Arai


Joe Rudko is one of the hardest working photo-based artists in show business. Since this past summer, he’s become a full time artist, buckling down in his studio full time to make some of the most painstaking and meticulous collages and found-photo interventions I’ve seen in years. His continuously evolving “Object Drawings” turn vintage photographs into multi layered drawings and three dimensional sculptures that reinterpret the experience of looking at static images, as well as the world around us. In advance of his upcoming exhibition at Roq La Rue gallery in Seattle, I caught up with Joe to learn more about his process.


Jon Feinstein: Rumor has it that you’re making work full time now. I love hearing when artists, especially young artists are able to dedicate all of their time to making work. What’s your typical day look like? 

Joe Rudko: Yeah, I quit my day job about 3 months ago. That really felt great. I don’t know if I have too typical a day, other than being in the studio for 8-10 hours, and giving attention to whatever is directly in front of me. I’m here by 11 in the morning and work on various projects until dinnertime. Over the last year I’ve really fallen in love with the time in the studio.


That’s great, and it’s really shown in how quickly your work has evolved. Before we get too deep into your practice, the music nerd in me has been dying to know — how did the Death Cab album cover come about? 

Glenn Newcomer, who I knew when I lived in Bellingham WA, works for a design firm in Seattle called Hum. They were doing the album design and packaging work, and he saw connections between the work I make and the process of Kintsugi, which the Death Cab album was titled after. Kintsugi is the Japanese word repairing an object with a precious metal, highlighting the break, and in turn honoring the past history of the object.

(Left to right) Exploded View, Big Artifact


Can you tell me a bit about your own process – start to finish?

My process seems to always be shifting. Sometimes it starts with an image, and other times I’ll be propelled by a new working method. It’s largely informed by a mixture of the photographic content, and the general language used to make and describe photographs. For example, the x shape that makes up Exploded View is reminiscent of the geyser eruption that makes up the subject of the image. The separation of the corners from the center of the image refers to an exploded view diagram that is commonly used in camera instruction manuals. If I’m lucky, the manipulations will reveal my initial attraction to the image.

The camera/ manual / photo history references come up a lot in your work….

I think there’s an interesting culture that surrounds photography, it is more widespread and approachable then other art- probably because it’s so tied to technology and everyday use. There’s something silly about pictures of cameras- it makes me think of Magritte’s paintings of paintings. The ephemera that surrounds photography provides a contextual awareness for the images. I think it makes the pictures more object-like, pulling them away from illusional space.

How did you connect with PDX Contemporary? Are they representing you exclusively? 

In 2013 I was invited by Sharon Arnold to participate in a “Recent Graduates” booth at the Affordable Art Fair in Seattle. I think that’s where Jane first saw my work. I did a group show with them, and then my first solo show in February of this year. Now they represent me in the state of Oregon, but occasionally they will take my work to fairs like Seattle Art Fair this past summer, and PULSE Miami this coming December.


Does being a “full time” artist — meaning one who survives on your art as your source of income — impact your practice?

It’s freed up a lot of my time, giving me a much more fluid schedule and ultimately reducing my level of anxiety. My goal has always been to make the work that I want to make, market or no market. At the same time, selling the work opens up a door to more freedom and experimentation. I think that I’ve always been a bit cautious about what I decide to put out into the world.


Do you think your work has changed now that more eyes are looking at it?

It’s definitely been changing. As I’ve worked more with the limitations I’ve set for myself I think the work has broadened out from being about one thing. Initially when I started making the Object Drawings, my thinking was more in line with the object-ness of the photographic image. Something that seemed very pertinent and opposite to the ubiquity of the online image experience.

Who are a few artists inspiring you right now? 

Lawrence Weschler did a book called “True to Life” compiling 30 years of conversations with David Hockney that is really good. It’s largely about Hockney’s investigations into visual perception and how we view and represent the world.


Other people I am currently stoked on: Lucas Blalock, Erin O’Keefe, John Divola, Gordon Matta-Clark, Letha Wilson, Jessica Eaton, Curtis Mann, Richard Tuttle, and Richard Aldrich.


Since I moved here in 2013, I’ve noticed that Seattle has a particularly tight-knit art/photo community. How does this influence, help, and impact your practice? 

I’ve been in Seattle for 2 years now and yeah it is pretty tight-knit. It’s natural that all the artists find each other pretty quickly. I’m really happy to know several talented and driven artists; I think it makes you step up your game. They can also be a great resource to keep learning and building on the approach to my work without the cash required for grad school.


For some reason, photographers specifically can often separate themselves from the “rest of the artists”. Maybe it’s something expressly about the medium that always seems to be on trial. I think the benefit of the smaller art community is that there’s room for you to do your own thing, and for that to cross over a variety of mediums and approaches.


I completely agree. I think that’s been a problem historically with photography – the larger art world dismissing it as “art” for much of the 20th century, and in turn, photographers putting themselves into a photo-ghetto that helped to reinforce that idea. How did you move from straight photography into collage/ “mixed media” based work?

I blame it on the Internet. During my last year of college I was having difficulty defending the photographs that I was taking, and being active on sites like Flickr and Tumblr wasn’t helping. I felt like I was adding to this massive stack of forgettable digital photographs. Making work using existing photographs was a way to comment on the conventions and contradictions within photography without adding to the pile. I was thinking about how my physical gestures were a way to recycle and retire images from the world, one by one.
This work is so much about the folding of time in how we experience viewing images/ how technology has changed that. As you get deeper into this work do you see these ideas broadening/ shifting?

Something interesting can happen when you look at an object from the past with the conventions of the present. I’m interested in that always-shifting history of the object, and how it makes the photographic information vulnerable.

Lately I have been tapping into the ways that personal association can shape interpretation. It’s sort of an internal diptych, in which the treatment and placement inform some sort of relationship. Occasionally Ansel Adams reproductions are making their way into the work. For me, he is the quintessential photographer to reference, someone whose images are so engrained in the collective psyche that they could be read as symbols of photography itself.

Why is Adams so quintessential for you?

Ansel Adams was probably the first major photographer that I was exposed to growing up. I think that I’m attracted to using his work because it’s familiar and so ubiquitous that his images can become a stand-in or prop for the medium of photography itself.

There’s also the connection that Ansel Adams has with the darkroom and photographic manipulation. His darkroom processes added intense contrasts and depth to American landscapes, provoking one of the first widespread conversations about editing and truth in photography.


You’ve mentioned your inspiration coming from being overwhelmed with the sheer number of photographs you see every day — I imagine it’s even more daunting now/ this far into the series.

Making this work in an analog fashion is some sort of escape route from the screen-heavy experience of digital photography. It makes me slow down my engagement with a photograph, and try to understand why I’m reading it the way I am. That’s where the work happens–when I’m able to shift the focus of an image to address the nature of the medium, and the potential an image has to communicate a variety of ways.


Does your process still hinge on manipulating vintage photographs with collage, drawing, and other techniques?

I’ve started to zero in more on some of the ideas, and that determines my approach on a case-by-case basis. I’ve recently been using sculptural attributes to reinforce or negate the subject matter in the images. It’s an attempt to combat the flatness in photography and painting, by adding a layer of sculptural language. Maybe it’s an attempt to condense Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs into a single object. Using photography and sculpture in tandem seems like a concrete way to bridge the abstract space between the virtual and real.


How do you go about selecting the found photographs that you later manipulate?

Lately I’ve been attracted to images that feel like they could be described in one word- like a flashcard. Or sometimes seeing one image will trigger a connection with a previous image I’ve seen, and I’ll want to put them next to each other to see if I can understand that tendency to connect new things to things we already know.

(Left to Right) Color Layer, Venn Diagram


Does digital play any role in your process?

I’ve worked a little digitally, but not too extensively. I started learning about photography at the moment when the digital/film conversation was in full-force. I’m more attuned to reading photographs in a digital context, and that has seeped into my process.


Last we spoke you were not editioning/ making prints of your work — each piece existed as a unique object. Why that decision? Is this still the case?

Editioning is a bit contradictory to the initial drive of the work, which was to reduce the huge pile of photographs that already exist. But, in my current show Broken Image at Roq La Rue, I have a pseudo-edition of pieces that all utilize the same image treatment, but come in b/w or color, and in 3 sizes. I was thinking about the decisions that a photographer has to make after the fact: How large should I print it? Should it be in b/w? etc. and how these questions are often incidental. I want to point at that absurdity and make it essential to the reading of the work.


Do you consider yourself a photographer/ artist/ does it matter? 

Sure, I’m a photographer. I’m also an artist. I don’t know if it matters what I consider myself to be, but I do like working in a space that isn’t easily defined.