Roy McMakin
James Harris Gallery, 309A Third Ave S, 903-6220.
Through Nov 15.

My favorite Roy McMakin work is two side-by-side bureaus, one with no knobs on the drawers and the other with all the drawers taken out. The drawers are stacked more or less neatly next to the dresser's skeleton, and the work's title tells you that the drawers are actually too big for the frame. In that very narrow wedge between use and uselessness lies the meaning of the work--more complex than simply a neutered useful object, something to do with happy corruption of systems and trust and comfort, and the sly rebellion of the everyday.

McMakin's best work (such as the bookcase that's tucked under a table laid on its side, which has on its face a refrigerator-style door) deals in such calculated deviation from the usual contexts. At the other end of the spectrum, his work is just furniture, and while it seems not quite adequate to say "just," because much of it is quite lovely (done up in gorgeous woods and generous upholstery and endearing, unusual touches), I haven't found the same thrill that curators and other critics have in the kinds of references he seems to be making: apparently "warming up" the chill of sleek modernism, and invoking your own memories of, and nostalgia for, the past in service of this warmth. These are all fine qualities, but to me they don't suggest the negotiated unknowns of art, but rather the renegotiated knowns of design--a fine distinction, but one worth making.

This, I think, is why McMakin's installations in SAM's Baja to Vancouver don't do him any favors. He built the benches placed in front of video works (and they are very nice indeed, generously proportioned and somehow with the wood's flaws made lovely and essential), and throughout the galleries you find these other nonfunctional benches, of the same proportions but painted a rather industrial, not quite metallic gray. They are installed upside down, or hanging from the ceiling, or so that they appear to be sinking into the floor, and instead of the delirious near miss of the too-big drawers, their nonfunctionality has a stark one-two punch. (And the unfortunate necessity of the politely worded warnings not to sit on the gray benches and please to sit on the wooden ones only strips the work's meaning down further.)

There's a big McMakin show arriving at the Henry next spring, but for now there's a tiny exhibition at the James Harris Gallery that shows you the enormous potential for significance embedded in his work. This show, a bookcase, a sculpture, some drawings and a belt buckle, features only those named items, and the three sculptural pieces are as elegant as a sentence with an exclamation point at the end.

In fact, it sort of looks like a sentence. It begins with a glittering silver belt buckle with the words "a door" emblazoned on it--one of McMakin's favored bits of wordplay, invoking the words "adore" and "adorn," and doing a bit of Magrittian jousting with words and objects. (I especially like the conclusion you might draw, if you were so inclined, that the belt is the door to the pants.) In the middle of the gallery is a four-shelved bookcase that has a kind of vent pipe thrusting up through it so that it is actually lifted right off the floor (it took me some time to see this). The contrasts are illuminating: the delicate woodwork and the brutally utilitarian pipe, the solidity of the furniture floating a few inches above the ground, craftsmanship invaded by utility, stillness versus movement, as well as whatever gender speculations you might want to make. Here is a work that seems to declare McMakin's larger intentions: to examine the balance between utility and art, a happy struggle between the requirements of each, with occasional outpacing of one by the other.

The last work is one of his globe-y gray-and-white light fixtures that seems to have fallen straight to the floor, exactly where it can do the least good. This, according to the title's inventory, is "a sculpture" and it's interesting to see where McMakin draws the line between art and furniture. Whether or not you believe him is part of the game.