Ghost in the Drywall
Christian Maychack's sculpture installations blur lines between animate and inanimate, decorative and functional.

Christian Maychack created "The Long Goodbye" specifically for this show.  


Christian Maychack: Chances Aren't
Details: through August 16
510-484-4373 Fri.-Sun., 1-5 p.m.
Where: At Lucky Tackle Gallery, 6608 San Pablo Ave, Oakland
From the Week of Wednesday, August 6, 2003
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Like a jumble of dry bones languishing in the desert, Christian Maychack's eleven-foot-tall sculpture installation sprawls from the gallery ceiling, down to the floor, and out into the room. It's a huge version of one of those toy dinosaur-skeleton models you might have built as a kid, usually made out of light balsa wood with notches where the "bones" fit together. But Maychack's sculpture looks like no dinosaur you've ever seen. He cut the pieces out of GatorFoam, covered them in wallpaper embossed with a quaint, almost Victorian pattern, and then painted them white to match the walls. The shapes are modeled after a motley assortment of animals; some are recognizable as parts of hippos, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, or the occasional bit of a human. The human pieces are the only ones that seem more or less actual size; the artist says he used his own body as a model.

Maychack calls it "The Long Goodbye," and it's one of three new works that he created specifically for this installation at Lucky Tackle. The title, he says, is not a reference to the Raymond Chandler novel, but more about "permanence, impermanence, and life and art." It's also a fairly accurate description of the artist's working process -- the painstaking way he whittled the idea for this sculpture down to its bare essentials before executing it at full three-dimensional scale. A preliminary sketch in the gallery office shows that he initially conceived it as a melding of this and the other large work in the show; at some point over the course of development, he must have realized that as two separate works, they would be much more formally and conceptually streamlined.

Since completing his MFA at San Francisco State University, Maychack has been at Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts, where he was awarded a post-MFA studio residency. You may have seen his work before, either at SFSU's annual MFA thesis exhibition, or more recently at the "Sewn Together" group show at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco. But this latest collection is much sparer than anything he's ever done, and what makes it so remarkable is the way it manages to be utterly minimal and yet just as intensely alive as anything he's created in the past.

One of the other two sculptures that he made for this show (both of which are untitled) is a huge, angular, vaguely arm-shaped chunk of plaster that appears to have pulled away from a similarly shaped hole in the gallery wall to rest its "elbow" on a red velvet floor pillow. To create the effect, Maychack had to deepen the entire gallery wall by about eight inches before digging out the cavernous hole that the arm supposedly emerged from; he meticulously plastered and painted everything so that no seams would be visible between the wall and the arm. The sculpture is all flat planes and sharp edges, but it is far from inanimate; in fact, the thing looks like it almost might resume movement at any moment, continuing to reach out like the slow, blind, searching tendril of a plant. The artist describes this piece as being about the motivational power of desire, but its monstrous size, and the clumsy way it nearly covers the pillow it's resting on, makes it difficult to attribute to it such tender human sentiment. It almost inspires a twinge of fear, or at least wariness. In case it might start to move again, we'll certainly be quick to get out of its way.

To create his earlier sculptures, which also always took on anthropomorphic forms, Maychack often used fabric mixed with countertop laminate, cement, live houseplants, and various other materials. The wood, drywall, and wallpaper he uses in this latest presentation are all new to him. Working with the wall is also new, apart from the piece he showed at Gregory Lind, and that was very different from these new ones, in the sense that it was never intended to blend into its surroundings. A crazy-quilt mixture of colored and textured fabrics, it hooked onto a protruding corner of the gallery wall and hung down like a large snake. It was a playful piece -- a lighthearted meditation on functionality versus nonfunctionality, and furniture versus art.

In a sense, the new and far more imposing wall-arm piece employs some of those same conflations, considering the way that the wall, usually an upright structural support, has broken off into something we might sit on, except that it seems itself to be tired, in need of something else to rest on. It seems a little presumptuous, even, that a white gallery wall -- usually intended to create as little distraction as possible from the artwork -- has dared to announce itself as an artwork and demand our attention. It practically flaunts its own nerve, lounging on a pillow as if it were taking a load off in someone's living room. And since the sculpture looks like such a seamless extension of the wall, we have to wonder where one ends and the other begins. With no clear physical line to separate them, furniture, architecture, and art become blurred in both definition and fact. What is in the service of what? Which parts are decorative, and which are functional?

Maychack's final piece in this show is a small, vaguely hammer-shaped mixed-media sculpture mounted on the wall. It has a smooth-sanded wooden handle, and the "head" is made from textured faux leather with dense bunches of pins stuck into it. Like the wall-arm, which juxtaposes drywall and velvet, this work also exhibits a playful interest in combining seemingly disparate materials. They both evoke useful objects (chairs and hammers) but the sculptures themselves aren't utilitarian in any way. The artist has also imbued them both with a kind of life force; arranged in colorful clumps, the plastic pinheads look almost like bacterial growths. More than just animate, they are practically pulsating with life.

There's also a kind of violence in the way Maychack has methodically (neurotically?) stuffed the pins into the soft flesh of the leather. So much of his art involves conjuring life, so to speak, out of nonorganic materials, and the presence of the pins begs the question of whether this conjuring might possibly stretch to incorporate a little bit of voodoo. Maychack would probably recoil at the suggestion; his focus on symbols of growth, like the plant motif of the Victorian wallpaper, or the actual houseplants he has used in his sculptures in the past, not to mention his obvious affinity for comforting materials like colorful, fuzzy fabrics, definitely point away from any kind of destructive or pain-motivated impulse on his part. But for his viewers, who have been conditioned by popular culture to regard synthetic life with a healthy dose of trepidation, Maychack's work will inevitably be a little unnerving. Call it the ghost in the drywall -- a mysterious animating force whose intentions we can only surmise. | originally published: August 6, 2003