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Art in Focus: Max Colby, Multimedia Visual Artist

By Julie Smith SchneiderJan 18 2022
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A lively profusion of kitschy vintage and contemporary materials — tinsel, tassels, toys, rhinestones, ornaments, glassware, sequins, beads, embroidery, stickers, and more — are layered into Max Colby’s sculptures and murals, on view in a campus-wide exhibition at Rockefeller Center, which opened Tuesday, January 18. Kicking off the 2022 Art in Focus season, produced in partnership with the Art Production Fund, this year’s program spotlights the works of five artists who use materials as a springboard to explore the human experience.

“A large thread through my bodies of work is my approach to material,” says Colby, a mixed-media visual artist who examines gender and identity, as well as class, taste, power, and domesticity, from a queer, transgender, and non-binary perspective. These themes come to life in her artwork through a mashup of re-envisioned contemporary, vintage, and antique materials, infused with a signature dash of campiness. In addition to material, research is a pillar of Colby’s practice. To help inform her work, Colby maintains a library of books on historical embroidery and textiles in her Ridgewood studio and devotes time to digging into museum archives. “I’m not a scholar,” Colby says, “but it’s important for me to be as thorough and intentional as possible when engaging material.”

Born in 1990 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Colby has lived in New York City for the last decade, after studying visual art and earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. In their mid-twenties, they took a five-year hiatus from making art while working in the service industry. Eventually, they started devoting all their time off to making art again, before taking the plunge in 2017 to leave the security of their day job to pursue their art practice full-time — a major turning point for the artist, both professionally and personally.

“Roughly at the time I reset my practice, I was becoming increasingly aware again that I was trans,” Colby says. “This is a subject I had tried to address as a pre-teenager. At that time, there wasn't really language or public conversation about it. There wasn't a lot of access to care, especially for a young person. So I lived for 15 years after that moment [...] and I developed philosophies on life that were not aligning with who I was.”

Restarting her art practice essentially meant starting over again and honing her ideas and voice as an artist. Colby started off her renewed art practice by picking up on a thread from her previous work and making a series of hand embroideries based on historical embroideries from public collections. Her practice has since expanded to include painting, drawing, collage, and large-scale installations.

“My interest in certain research topics — exploration of gender and aesthetics, for instance — is informed by my experience as an American woman of trans experience,” Colby says. “Initially, exploring these topics included a layer of dissecting my relationship to inherited cultural understandings of binary gender, as well as class and taste, in relation to my queerness. And so, you could say there’s a personal process involved, though mostly behind the scenes, on undoing that conditioning.”

In the profusion of material that comprises Colby’s work, there is also precision. To gather her palette of materials with a “cultural charge,” she shops “all the time” from a variety of shops: antique stores, thrift stores, eBay, party supply shops, and bead and sewing notions distributors in the Garment District in New York City. “Some people think that there's just a glut of materials in my studio, like a warehouse, and it couldn't be further from the truth,” Colby says. In her workspace, there are two sections that she keeps completely separate. One section serves as an office and storage space, and the other is purely for the production of new work, with a shelving system stocked with materials that she describes as “meticulously, obsessively organized.” This approach to accumulation and assemblage of materials is on display in various forms throughout Colby’s installations at Rockefeller Center.

In the lobby of 45 Rockefeller, three mirrored vitrines, set into the marble Art Deco walls, enshrine 27 sculptures from Colby’s series, titled They Consume Each Other, a sort of magnum opus for the artist. Each sculpture, measuring roughly a foot tall, is perched upon a custom clear glass base. The embellished, bulbous forms of each sculpture seem to sprout from the cushion that supports it in a shimmer of crystal and satin and faux flower petals. Each is made with a blend of hand embroidery, beading, appliqué, and upholstery, processes historically associated with domestic handwork.

As playful and bright as Colby’s work can be, there’s also room for grief. “There's this really dynamic duality in that work, from my perspective,” she says, referencing her sculptures. “They're very joyous. They're very celebratory. They’re kind of funny. They're campy. They're also a little provocative, and there are some parts that are slightly sad.”

The installation also resonates with something hallowed. “The sculptural work in this series is reminiscent of altarpieces,” Colby says. “The pillow forms are reminiscent of pillows you'd find for a ring bearer at a wedding or a coronation or just generally precious objects, through an art historical lens.”

The title They Consume Each Other, Colby says, comes from their investigations into how aesthetics become gendered and can enforce Western and colonial understandings about gender. “The idea that those kinds of cultural constructions, generally speaking, are destructive and they lead to a culture that is patriarchal, is, in and of itself, kind of nihilistic. So, the idea of self-consumption or consuming others, through that lens is an entry point to how that title was developed,” Colby explains. Close-up details from this series also appear in murals throughout the campus.

Lush with faux florals, feathers, and jumbles of plush animal toys and dolls, images from Colby’s Elegies series, produced primarily in 2019 and 2020, are installed at 10 and 45 Rockefeller Plaza. This collection of wall-based relief sculptures emerged from Colby’s research on American contemporary commercial funeral wreaths.

“I use very campy, kitschy materials that really challenge ideas of high and low, the mundane, and taste, and I marry these materials and textile-based techniques with fantastical forms that reference ritual or ceremony,” Colby says.

At Rink Level, a 125-foot mural features images from Colby’s collaged paintings, made in 2020, that build on explorations of gendered labor and aesthetics that have run through their work for the past decade. To make these works, Colby copied floral vignettes from crewel embroideries — made during Colonial, Elizabethan, and Victorian-eras — and rendered her versions in gouache on translucent paper. The paintings are layered on top of masses of stickers (the kind that elementary school kids might be fond of) or the die-cut outline that’s left when all the stickers are peeled from the sheet. Making these works on paper was a way for Colby to reflect on the themes of her sculptural work in a different way, and also to find an avenue for intuitive play in her art practice during the fraught early pandemic months.

Exhibiting in the grand and bustling spaces of Rockefeller Center is a chance for Colby to bring the conversations that their work tends to spark to different spaces. “I've always admired Art Deco architecture so much, and Rockefeller Center is this complex that's kind of the height of that,” they say. “Also, it’s exciting to be a very openly trans artist who deals with topics relative to gender, in such a heavily trafficked and high impact space.”

Colby also sees a visual conversation between their work and the history of the campus. “There's this back and forth between the dynamic of Rockefeller Center — a space that is so embedded in television production and pop culture — and the way in which that's present in my work, with the materials that bring in familiar conversations from popular culture, with the use of toys, graphic imagery, and so on.”

When visitors and passersby encounter her exhibit at the Center, Colby says she hopes the experience inspires people to look at the materials that show up in her work, and the spaces that those materials come from, in a new light. “I enjoy when people come away with an active, positive new approach to that, which, to me, is such a function of the queerness of the work and the candidness of the work,” Colby says. “I just hope that they take the time to really pause and reflect and come out with a really affirmative new experience.”

Max Colby’s artwork is on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through March 27, 2022. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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