the practice of Max Colby


Thousands of buttons and bows and hundreds of patches. Materials are gathered in abundance and then quickly used to create artworks that don’t easily fit the aesthetics of norms that hold the frameworks of a museum and gallery space. And yet, with his conscious effort to explore the historical, social, and cultural aspects of materials often perceived as artistic and decorative, New York-based artist Max Colby presents “a place for joy and reprieve, highlighted by rich detail and flamboyant color and at the same time a somber act of contemplation,” her biography reads. The studio is not a thrift store. A warehouse for material is further from the truth. Two or three containers become a habitat for active materials, separated by Colby’s quirks about which materials already exist and which need to be purchased to create works of art that are often perceived as overly decorative. As permutations and combinations simmer within the connections, bringing together diverse beads, sequins and embellishments, Colby’s works are simultaneously camp and non-camp, embellished and unembellished – “emphasizing a precariousness and vulnerability through an examination of ritual objects, mostly funerals”.

Studio shot by Max Colby, 2022, photography Image: Max Colby

Revival, embrace, opulence—all are evoked in viewing Colby’s work, which explores temporality as a primary phenomenon. In her first solo exhibition entitled revivalexhibited at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles introduced Colby They consume each other and shrouds. They consume each other comprises 42 sculptures and 30 custom-made glass stands on a pedestal, and examines materials that refer to specific ceremonial and spiritual objects from contemporary America, colonial America, mid-century American materials, and some European materials—highly decorative, highly ornate. The second group of works in the exhibition bears the title shrouds, most of which was created in 2022, and the basis 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 less organized. The title for this group of works comes from the larger work, which is the size of a queen-size coat. With an anthropomorphic quality created by the way they can be wrapped around the body, shrouds evoke objects related to rituals related to death.

Walkthrough from Revival, 2022, videos Video: Courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery

Colby’s early artistic processes included an engagement at Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the United States. At that time she was mainly engaged in papermaking and printmaking, which later morphed into mixed media and sculptural works. By the age of 14-15, sculptural work created as an assemblage of found materials found an emerging affiliation with connections that would later define the aesthetics of her practice. Speaking to STIR, Colby shares, “I’ve done a few sculptures and always enjoyed various mediums at the time, but the essential connections weren’t there. When creating collages, many materials came through in two dimensions. Later, when I started sculpting with found materials, connections began to take shape. My language slowly developed and I began to work on two-dimensional works as well as sculptural and installative works at the same time.”

Untitled work from 'They Consume Each Other', 2022, crystal and plastic beads and sequins, found fabric, border, fabric flowers, costume jewellery, polyester wadding, thread |  revival |  Max Colby |  STIRworld
Unnamed work out they consume each other 2022, crystal and synthetic beads and sequins, found fabric, trim, fabric flowers, costume jewelry, polyester wadding, yarn Image: Courtesy of Max Colby

Crewel embroidery also occupies a special interest in Colby’s practice – an interest she began actively researching in 2012, before already embedding different stories and connotations behind different materials in her work. “The embroidery work, if not the first, was definitely one of the earlier moments where I became more aware of the processing and presentation of my work,” says Colby. Regarding the subject matter 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 the white cube structures entail. On the issue of negotiation within these institutions, when desires and phallic structures emerge, she shares: “Early on in my practice, I developed positions theoretically and academically within the work. As the work and myself have grown, I am less committed to negotiation and more interested in what kind of provocations and investigations take place within the work. It’s less about leaving it to an answer than to a question. And here the work of an artist is really the most important thing – in the question. I have opinions, but I’m not sure I can position my thoughts towards the ultimate through visual language. The work obviously comes from a perspective – my identity, the questioning of various social constructs through aesthetics and aesthetic movements. I come from multiple angles, but I respect the intelligence of my viewers.”

Shroud #7, 2022, Found 'Crazy' quilt ca. 1950, border, fabric flowers, streamers, banners, garland, crocheted potholders, paper cut-outs, toys, ribbons, costume jewellery, buttons, plastic flowers, fauna and fruit, beads, sequins, thread, fabric|  revival |  Max Colby |  STIRworld
Shroud No. 7, 2022, Found ‘Crazy’ quilt ca. 1950, border, fabric flowers, streamers, banners, garland, crocheted potholders, paper cut-outs, toys, ribbons, costume jewelry, buttons, plastic flowers, fauna and fruit, beads, sequins, thread, fabric Image: Daniel Greer; Courtesy of Max Colby

The proliferation of banal materials goes hand in hand with historical moments such as circular embroidery, early 20th centuryth Century American quilting, mid-20th century toy circulationth Century North America and so on. Upon closer scrutiny, these channels of inquiry lead to a complexity that in turn leads to an accessibility for the audience to encounter extravagant installations created from cheap fabrics. “For older materials, such as certain styles from 1890-1910, I look at resale stores, estate sales, thrift stores, folk collections, and often I buy items at party stores. I also often buy contemporary replicas of certain things. The party shops are becoming my favorite place to buy materials and create my work,” Colby shares of the process of collecting these materials in relation to what she is working on at any given time.

Max Colby describes Shroud No. 6, 2022, videos Video: Courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery

The process is obsessive, the objects campy, bold, and yet there is “a poignant presence” and “a moment to dissect deeply embedded cultural conditions of normative gender, class and power”. Looking at the camp, Colby says, “Partly the camp popped up because the work had been like that for a while. Camp is also a multifaceted term and topic. My work also involves a certain subversive mimicry and the materials are so cheap and cheesy that it becomes complex. To me it kind of acknowledges that it’s the antithesis of Camp, while also being Camp that the aesthetic really evokes something. Humor is inherent and as I get a range of replies none bothers me.”

Shroud No. 7 (detail) |  revival |  Max Colby |  STIRworld
Shroud #7 (Detail), 2022, Found ‘Crazy’ quilt ca. 1950, border, fabric flowers, streamers, banners, garland, crocheted potholders, paper cut-outs, toys, ribbons, costume jewellery, buttons, plastic flowers, fauna and fruit, beads, sequins, yarn, material Image: Daniel Greer; Courtesy of Max Colby

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

Portrait of Max Colby, 2022, Photography |  revival |  Max Colby |  STIRworld
Max Colby, 2022, photograph Image: Courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery


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