Maxwell Runko

We had coffee with sculptor and photographer Maxwell Runko, a student at VCU, as he reflected on black holes, the beauty of dryer lint, and the evolution of relationships.

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What medium did you get into first?

I started in 10th grade with photography and that was my jumping off point. I got into Flickr super hard. I was into photography and that segued into being interested in art in general and that was when I took my first art class. It was a basic art class where you draw a self portrait and all that. Then I went to the pre-college program at VCU and it solidified what I was interested in – art. But it really started in 10th grade with photography. 

Would you say your work is nostalgic or informed by new experiences?

I wouldn’t say my work is nostalgic. I’m not talking about my childhood, I’m talking about my present-day relationship with my parents and the dynamics of it, coming out to them over the summer and that experience. That whole dynamic of the relationship is what I’m really interested in. So I would say it’s based on new experiences. For example, I used to paint my nails a lot as a child. So with my mom, we did this video performance where we put on nail polish and mascara, and I overlaid them to indicate that relationship. So that was based on nostalgic events but I don’t think it was readily apparent. Family is such an interesting idea for me because everyone has a family, whether blood related or not. If you use certain things like a mother and a father, those ideas are something that people can see themselves through.

Family is such an interesting idea for me because everyone has a family, whether blood related or not.

Do you usually iterate or go with your first instinct?
Do you still take photos?
It depends. I had a teacher, Michael Jones McKean, who told me ‘the first idea is always the worst.’ So I always hold that in the back of my head. But on a certain level I feel that I need to trust myself and be firm about what I see in my head and in what I’m making. Right now I’m doing a lot of intuition-based work. The leg piece was my first project and I found my sketchbook from first semester of sophomore year and I wrote down ‘initial ideas: legs floating, of glass, in the critique room.’ And it’s funny that I was working in that way because I don’t work like that anymore.
Sometimes I do. I took a photo class last semester and I took these photos of my mom, which I have yet to show anyone. My family is what I’m really into right now, just the dynamics and the relationship I have with them. I’ve been doing these portraits where I’ve been taking a picture of my mom or my brother then they take a picture of me and then I print it out and weave them together (shown below). They become these huge objects that put this relationship front and center, really just being 50/50. That’s how I see my photography right now. It’s more of a means to an end.

My family is what I'm really into right now, just the dynamics and the relationship I have with them.

Does your photography inform your sculpture work?

It’s all related for me. Even though it’s a different medium it still translates my ideas. I’m more interested in bringing my photography into my sculpture work than bringing sculpture into my photography, though. But I don’t think they’re two separate worlds that can’t meet in the middle. I’ve been doing a lot of picture stuff, like those woven portraits, which I feel are more of a sculpture than just a photo since they have an evident trace of my hand.

Out of all the projects you’ve worked on, do you have one that speaks the most to you?

My teacher assigned a ‘collection’ project last semester. She said, ‘collection. That’s all I’m going to say.’ I started thinking of this idea of collecting objects and that relationship people have with collections of objects, which lead into me making objects with my identical twin brother. I made five objects and had him make them ‘identically’ (shown below). That’s where the whole family idea comes from. It was a game changer for me because I could talk about my family, this super personal relationship, but it could be dislocated and able to reach a viewer and allow them to have their own understanding and perception of it. That was a really pivotal moment in my career as an artist. If I am an artist.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
You use a lot of unique materials in your work, like dryer lint. How do you decide which materials to use?
What’s your opinion on ‘Do Not Touch’ signs?
I was just doing laundry one day, and I took the lint trap out and I was like ‘wow none of my roommates have taken this out after they dry their clothes!’ It was so thick, it showed how much time was invested in this material. There was this thread stuck in the dryer lint, wrapped around on itself and going into the infinite, it was so beautiful. I just can’t help myself sometimes. This is just a really beautiful thing that’s happening right now. I also think materials and surface have a lot of cultural significance. Like if you use an iPhone in your work, it’s going to have weight. So I think a lot about that in my work and how the materials inform viewers of what you’re discussing and how you can control what they’re seeing. I use a lot of Durham’s rock hard water putty. I just like tactility, I want to touch things with my hands. Schooling has taught me a lot about materials, but it’s also about beauty and attraction. Sometimes I’m like, ‘this is so beautiful I need to use this. I need to cover this in resin and paint it orange.’
Bullshit. I make my work to be touched, but nobody touches it. And I’m not about to put a sign that says ‘touch me!’ When we go into a critique people sometimes get really close to my work and they’re like ‘I want to touch it so bad.’ And I’m like, just touch it this isn’t a museum! I just love touching things, understanding textures and surfaces and their dynamics. Bringing in objects that are matte with objects that are glossy and how that affects people. Shininess elicits this weird attractiveness that makes people want to touch. So I play a lot with finishing and how it affects the level of viewer interaction. So if someone asks me if they can touch something I’m like of course! I’ve touched it a million times before, it’s not like one more finger will do anything. My high school art teacher told me this story about how one time she went up to this painting in a gallery and licked it. She just had to because it was beautiful. And that’s something that I think about. Touching is important.
You gained a lot of followers through Tumblr and Flickr. Has that culture affected you at all?
How do you handle criticism?
Tumblr is a really bizarre thing because it gives this warped perspective of what makes work good. If I have more notes does it make it better? If it has less is it not good art? That’s why I stopped using Tumblr because I get freaked out by it. The internet strikes a chord with me though because there’s so much opportunity. If you work hard enough there is so much potential, I honestly believe in that and I think you can just make so many contacts and meet so many people virtually and physically. But the internet also scares me because it’s like this black hole. It gets me anxious that I’m adding to this detrimental orb. On the internet, if one thing happens it’s a trickle effect and then you see all that style and aesthetic happening. So that’s the weird relationship I have with it. I find myself looking at it less and less and reading more art theory and philosophy.
Critiques [pin ups] are so fun and important for me because when you’re in a critique you’re not there to be somebody’s friend. It’s not even like it’s a gallery and you’re a viewer, you’re there to tell them what is working and what is not. We’re there to help each other realize what will be good in an actual gallery. I think criticism is so vital right now. I’m 20 and I’m just doing these actions and moves, making these decisions. So having opinions from people outside and inside my class is super pivotal for any young artist. Without it I’d just be floating in this oblivion. It’s one thing too, where you look at your work and then you have someone else look at your work. You may see this whole anecdotal dialogue that they don’t see. I’m so thankful I have the opportunity to have critiques. It’s a really necessary aspect of school.













So having opinions from people outside and inside my class is super pivotal for any young artist.

Do you think Richmond is a developing center of counter-culture?

Richmond is a ground for cultivating young artists and they have a lot of good things to say and a lot of good work to make. But I don’t think it will ever be like New York, LA., or Europe it’s just too intimate and there’s not enough revenue to make these impactful spaces. However, my friend Evana Roman just opened this space on Grace Street called Atlantis Gallery. It’s people like her that are really getting the ball rolling by trying to help out the undergrads and show that we actually have things to say. Through the art school and VMFA there’s a lot of great artists and art here, and there’s a lot of artists coming in from outside of Virginia which I love because it’s a whole new walk of life. In a couple years Richmond could be something, but I know for me at least when I graduate I’m not going to stay.

How do your surroundings inspire you?

For me Richmond really began the conversation of materiality because wherever you look there’s so much material. Even right here there’s a bench and concrete with cigarette butts on them with ashes and huge windows. All that stuff is so inspiring to me. When I walk around by myself I’m observing everything. I just take everything in. I remember one time last year I passed this beer bottle that was tied in a plastic bag, and I thought, ‘that’s really beautiful.’ I try to notice these minute details, which really translated into my work. Richmond makes me realize small moments and how large they actually are.

Interview by Austin Ledzian and Luisa Lacsamana

Photographs by Maxwell Runko