Studio Visit: Grace Makuch
october 2018 / chicago, il.
You know that thing where you’re on Instagram and you find a new account—maybe through your discover page or maybe through someone else’s account—and you end up scrolling back for months and months excitedly viewing each post because the content is just too good? This is how I discovered Grace Makuch’s art on Instagram. Her text-based work is relatable and funny, it’s honest and earnest, and it’s aesthetically pleasing. It engages with the form and language of contemporary media in a way that feels crucial, especially to viewers navigating self in the digital age. I visited Grace at her studio to talk more about her work.*
THE ARTIST: Grace Makuch is a visual artist living and working in Chicago.
At the age of four Grace drew an image of girl whose face was split in two. One side was green and one side red with the features switched on either side. Her family saw it and exclaimed, “She’s an artist!” and encouraged Grace to take art classes. She remembers deciding as a child, “Art’s fun but it’s not practical,” crediting her early logical senses to her Capricorn Rising, and ultimately pursued a Communications major in college. She switched to an Art Education major in her second semester before settling into an Art degree. This is when Grace took her first ever printmaking course—an etching class—and had that famous “this is it!” moment. After graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Columbia College, Grace completed a fellowship at Spudnik Press, and maintains a studio space there. She is currently an artist-in-residence at the Chicago Artists Coalition as a part of their FIELD/WORK program. She utilizes her background in printmaking expansively across mediums.
THE WORK: Most of Grace’s work centers around text, and seems to be conscious of the way that the language of media, of advertising, of news, is all around us in an overwhelming way. Grace situates herself within that language to make it personal and poetic, so that her work is reminiscent of news headlines, or punchy media one liners, but in a way that reads as poetry.
Melissa Fandos: Can you talk about your process of absorbing language, and why you find yourself doing this?
Grace Makuch: From my conception I have been surrounded [by language]. Both my parents were creative writing MFAs, so language and its’ importance have always been there, whether or not I was realizing it. That might be why I make text-based art? I’m still figuring that out. And then there’s also this weirdly deep urge to be online and biographical with myself, which might be a generational thing. But then I think maybe not because some of my peers don’t tweet 40 times a day.
I also found my diary recently from when I was a kid and it proved to me that my urge to create one liners has been happening since I was six or seven years old. There are two that I want to read to you: “I’m very tired. It’s almost 9 o’clock.” This is the only thing on the page, right? And the next one just says, “I’m having a lot of fun.”
These essentially are just [my] tweets now. I don’t know what that’s about but I’ve always been someone who values brevity and talking about feelings, often in a funny way. It’s always been a thing for me. I use Twitter like this weird 21st century encyclopedia of every thought I’ve had. I’ve been doing it since I was 14 and if I had had the option to tweet when I was seven, I’m sure I would have [because] I’ve been tweeting since it was available to me. It’s really cool because now I have amassed 25,000 tweets and can search key-terms to reference how I felt or thought about something when I was way younger. I got locked out of my Twitter account for 48 hours recently and—this is so pathetic—but I was so distraught. I was like, “What, do I have to write things down on a piece of paper?” And I didn’t. Finally I realized that the reason I got locked out was because my password was “stuartlittle” and it was too easy.
[Reflecting on] what you were saying about absorbing media and advertising, we live in this world that creates unbelievable sensory overload all the time, and the only way I feel like I can handle it without just drudging through life every day is to look specifically for the things that are pointed at me in certain ways—just by happening upon them—and finding the ones that are funny or are weird or stick out to me. I see stuff like this at the Dollar Store all the time—it’s a gold mine for weird one liners. There was one [typo printed on a plaque] that said, “home is where you heart is.” And it’s like, “Great! This is perfect!” I’m really inspired by everyday happenings of text, and sometimes images, but mostly text.
MF: And most of your work does feel rooted in everyday life; what draws you to focus on the everyday instead of abstractions?
GM: Well this kind of goes back to finding my diary. For awhile I would have said I make this art because it's what I know and it's who I am, and I guess I'm still saying that, but I’m saying it now realizing that this way of communicating has historically been a thing for me. I find a lot of humor and value in everyday occurrences [and] everyday interactions with other people. I think the majority of the life that we know as humans is not going be these really intense, majestic [moments]. I think it's important to reflect, and I see nobility in creating autobiographical work because I care about creating work that reflects time and our generation. I do think we’re in a really weird spot right now [where] making work about the chaos of having graduated college the same year Donald Trump took office [is important]. [Even if] it's not exactly what my work is about, it’s related to the chaos I feel as a person at this specific time. What else would I be making work about? And I also think I come from a place of privilege where I can be making work about nothing in a lot of ways, but also about everything. It's just what I know.
And there are issues, and subjects, and topics and themes that I care a lot about that I've worked on with different projects in the past or support personally outside of my creative practice, but what is most true to me right now is making work that is very autobiographical and, honestly, spiritual in a lot of ways. A lot of the work I make is physically pulling me out of grotesque mental states, and I think that's totally fine to just make work that gets you to where you need to be.
MF: There’s an understanding throughout art and literary history that women took to private mediums, such as diaries or journals, for creative expression while men were encouraged to seek public mediums. Referencing this, the poet Sara Sutterlin says, “My feelings are for you journal, your feelings are for your career.” So what I think is so powerful about your art is that you take the form of a handwritten diary, or the form of what I would argue is a modern day diary: Twitter, and you finalize it in print. You’re rendering historically private, intimate thoughts as public and permanent. How much of that is intentional, and what is your process behind it?
GM: Once again I have re-evaluated everything after finding my diary. It's weird because I actually don’t journal. I do in the sense that I [use] Twitter, but if you look at this diary filled out between 2001 and 2008, I write maybe once every year. I feel like I’m not the type [of person] who journals, but I am someone who is very autobiographical [and] thinks about my personal narrative. From a young age I’ve been in constant communication with myself.
[The look of a private journal entry] is intentional. I would love for someone to just happen upon one of these and be like, “What the fuck am I looking at here?”
With Conversations With God, I abstracted it so that even if you spend a lot of time with it, it would never make sense. I think that’s actually a common thread with a lot of work that I make: I have this urge to abstract the language and make it challenging to digest. If I’m being completely and embarrassingly honest, I think it is because [the content of my work] is really personal and I have a hard time [sharing it]. I’m pretty shy, and I have two conflicting urges where I’m like, “This has to go out into the world, people have to read this, people have to see this,” but then also, “Nobody can see this, this is very much for me.”
[Pointing to Headlines] This is not easy to read. I Feel Like a Moth is hard to look at. I don't even intentionally work that way it just happens that I have this subconscious urge not to destroy everything I make, but to make it challenging to even look at and I think it's just me being really shy.
MF: But I think that’s so cool, given the history of women being confined to one form of expression, to say I’m going to make this public but I’m also going to limit what you get to see.
GM: And I’m going to make you work for it.
MF: Yeah! It’s taking the power back.
GM: Yeah, exactly. The worst thing for me would be to make this work and then have the power taken from me. I’m [not] publishing [my work] into the world because I want to give it away forever. It’s still me and it’s still mine. That’s why I do the things that I do. Maybe I'm figuring this out right now. [Laughs].
MF: And with Conversations With God, you read it and you feel frustrated that you don't get the whole story, but it’s not for you. Finally people get to say what they want to say and they're in control of that.
GM: And I also feel like I've always been a little bit of a prankster. That’s just who I am. I like the idea of making something where if somebody really, really wanted to know about the piece, they would have to reach out to me. That is funny to me. I think I sometimes like to be challenging to other people just for the sake of doing it and taking up space and time.
MF: You have talked about earnestness and oversharing in your work and I really appreciate that. Every time I post something on the internet I want to share everything about it, but I also feel this pressure to be digestible online. Women have historically had to make themselves small, and I’m interested in how this happens digitally—how people make themselves digitally small and digestible. Do you ever feel you have to negotiate your digital presence?
GM: All the time. I think about it and it drives me insane.
MF: Especially because social media does seem like a huge part of your practice.
GM: Yeah. Okay so, Twitter and Instagram: Twitter I feel very little pressure. I can use it in a way that I want to be using it. But with Instagram—it's funny you're talking to me now [because] I recently had a really, really intense crush for a month and I felt like I couldn't do anything on the internet. I felt so constrained. It's like that thing when you have a crush on somebody and you forget who you are and you look over your own Instagram like, “I’m ugly, I’m weird, I’m not a normal person.” Oh my god, using Instagram—I love it but I really hate it but I love it.
I have three Instagram accounts. Honestly I think of my life categorized: if it’s going on my @gracemakuch account it’s related to art, maybe? But then I have my @polenta_grace account which is just regular me, and then I have my finsta which is purely me shit-posting and being really self-indulgent. I'm constantly navigating between [posting on each account]. Recently my @gracemakuch and finsta account got linked, and I posted a picture of me on the toilet on my finsta account and it was like, “Should I continue to sit on the toilet and do a face mask or should I go to the gym?” Because that's the kind of thing I’ll post on my finsta and somebody will respond. But I posted that to my art account and then just went to the gym and didn't log on to Instagram for an hour and a half. And then I came back and was like, “What have I done?” and it momentarily felt like the end of the world for me.
I wish there was a way to be more yourself on Instagram. It creeps me out how much people really curate accounts, right, and it has a weird impact on your life! Oscar Chavez has that work with a crossed out Gucci sweatshirt that says, “I know my worth.” And then the back of the sweatshirt says, “I have over a thousand Instagram followers.” And it's like, so true! People will talk to you more [if you have followers]. Like suddenly people care like, “Oh she has a following?” It’s fucked up, it's really fucked up. The people that I want to work with unfortunately sometimes do care about that. I wish nobody cared. I wish that you could not see how many followers you had.
MF: And I also hear people say they feel pressure to regularly create and share their art on social media, but I often feel pressure to not share my work because I don't want to annoy people. Like if I post too much I feel I must reign in my digital self, or be digitally conscious of how much space I’m taking up, even though no one cares.
GM: But there's limitless space on the internet, which is the crazy thing! You could post forever! But this is something I always wonder, “When is it going to end?” Like, oh my god, if it could just end tomorrow I would stand up and clap my hands and be like, “It was a good run. I have a website. Enough people will probably remember me.” Actually I’m probably wrong about this because when Vine got taken away I was really distraught, so if Instagram got taken away it would probably really fuck me up. But it would be nice to have some respite from this sort of constant pressure to be a cool girl on the internet. And it's so much harder for women than men—this pressure for a woman to be small and act a certain way, it's so true. It's just like, damn, can I just be myself and be fucked up and be on the toilet?
And nobody does care. It’s our own self-indulgent dream that people care about what we post on the internet. When I scroll on the internet it's mostly passive. And I have to separate myself sometimes; I’ll mute people that I like too much. Not just even if i'm attracted to somebody—if I think someone is really awesome or so cool, I can't look at their internet persona. It just [creates] so much more pressure in person, because then when I see them I’m like, “You did this.” Suddenly everything becomes creepy and you just feel worse about yourself and it's this never ending circle.
MF: What thoughts or projects are you excited about going forward?
GM: One [project] is this never-ending book of mantras. I’ve been thinking a lot about [how] I listen to the same songs over and over and over again, and one of them is “Impossible Soul” by Sufjan Stevens which is a 25 minute long whirlwind of a ballad. It’s a crazy song because you could be in the worst fucking mood of your life and be like, “I'm not getting out of bed,” but by the end [of the song] you're like, “I’m here. I’m ready. This is my life. I’m taking advantage of it.” That's all to say that this has been a big thing for me lately: mantras. I think a lot about the repetition of the language I'm telling myself either through music or through things that I inadvertently repeat in my head, or things that my parents tell me all the time. My dad always says the same things to me when we hang up the phone, or when I drive away from his house, or when anything goes wrong. He has his sayings and I guess I'm just thinking about the repetition of language in my life right now as my next big focal point. Rather than just hitting people with the one liners, I’m focusing on what language already exists in my life. So that’s what’s next, but I’m not totally sure what form that will take.
Things I Learned, Or Was Reminded Of While Talking to Grace:
The Facebook group Cool Crops Club where members crop images to bring new meaning
The website In The Make which documents studio visits across the West Coast
to think about mantras in my own life, or the language of my family and friends, and how to document them
Thank you @grace for letting me visit your studio, and thank you for making art!! Check out Grace’s Instagram.
and thank you @nora for helping me edit the interview, and thank you to @lydia for interviewing Grace before me!
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.