California Creatives: The Transformers—Artist Ian Markell Wants to Shift Your Perspective

This season’s California Creatives are the kind of bold, imaginary thinkers who have walked away from promising careers, forged ahead in the face of fear, or picked up the pieces of thwarted dreams to pivot toward an unknown path. For these architects, skincare stars, chefs, artists, and more, courage has been found in 180 degree turns and slight shifts in thinking. In this year of drastic change, each of our pioneering subjects offers an example of how to move forward, taking what we’ve learned from the past into a brighter, more authentic future.

There’s a dance in artist and photographer Ian Markell’s work between what’s revealed and concealed, and between the merging histories of the found objects that appear in his assemblage, that in so many ways echo the city he grew up in. The Markells have been in Los Angeles since the turn of the 20th century, witnesses to and participants in the many converging cultures and narratives that define this city and now inform his work. “It’s why I feel a little like I need to contribute something,” admits Markell on the phone at home in Beachwood Canyon. Here, the on-the-rise creative talks about being a queer artist, why he’s “archive crazy,” and why a shift in perspective can change not only an image or an object, but our future at large.

You’ve been spending time in your studio in LA in the past few months.

Yes. The studio is in MacArthur Park, which is historically an important area for my family and the art world in a way. My family moved close to this area in the early 1900s to start making toys, with an influx of Jews moving there. And there was kind of an art renaissance in that area in the '30s and '40s. The building itself used to be part of Chouinard Art Institute (est. 1921) before [the Disneys formed] Cal Arts. So Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha were learning how to hone their skills in the building. I like that those histories are collapsing on each other.

You went to Cooper Union, so you must have known you wanted to be an artist. Do you remember when you decided this?

There was no real plan B. It was the only thing I ever cared about that much. There’s this one day I always go back to where my aunt picked me up and took me to LACMA. I was probably six. She’s like a Fellini character. She looked like Dolly Parton with crazy fake blonde hair and huge orange sunglasses and was smoking in the car. There was something about going and seeing art [that felt so outside of] normal life. I was entranced by the whole event of going to the museum. It’s about how one spends their time and who one surrounds themselves with, and how you want to live your life accordingly.

Your work seems to have a recurring play with what’s hidden and what’s shown. I’m thinking of pieces like Riser and People Behind Screened Window, 1965—even HUB_0, 2019 with the small drain.

I start by looking through binders and archives without purpose. Because some of the materials in my work are found or sourced, I’m interested in one history [meeting] with another. In Riser there’s this image safe that’s been jammed into this other object (a DJ platform that was used for parties). You can’t access [the safe] but you can see what’s inside of it. It’s a cabaret dance of what you’re showing and what you’re not showing. I hope my work brings up the act of looking, not taking it for granted. This self-awareness, that you become really attune to the way that you engage with [art] because they’re such pointed experiences. You’re given room to breathe that you aren’t in the outside world.

Talk to me about your sculptural work. What draws you to a material and its pairings?

I source from scrap yards. I’m drawn to things that have come into my life when they’ve had another life. I’m playing the roll of the editor, my gesture is the combination and pairing of materials to make a new form like a seamless collage. It’s pieced back together, but the elements stay separate, so I’m thinking about the lives of things individually and when they’re combined. I’m obsessed with that. I zoom in and out from the micro to the macro. Like I’m looking at my phone which is a whole world inside of a home inside of block inside of a city inside of a state. How everything is a Russian nesting doll where there’s an infinite thrust in and out of compartmentalization whether it’s ideological or physical. You can zoom in forever to a single grain and zoom out to a single grain. It kind of eats its tail in that way.

Whose work inspires you?

I’m looking at the photographs of Alvin Belthrop, he was photographing the Chelsea piers at the same time as Gordon Matta-Clark was making those cuts in the building. Kind of those figures and the destruction element this gay life occupying these structures in the midst of collapse. There’s something in the unmaking of those images that has been powerful: making by unmaking. Letting this be unraveled and cut open in this Matta-Clark kind of way. I’m thinking about production in destruction, about removing and recombining as a way of making.

There’s also an element in those works of what’s not there.

It’s like On Kawara’s date paintings: you’re getting the total removal of the subject matter; you’re getting a stand in. That’s what photography is. What it means to look at a stand in with the same emotion as if it were the real thing. An actor is a stand in, but we can still cry. There’s something real there somehow.

Tell us about your most recent piece, Severed Flagpole.

That is something I recently created to be an ongoing, unlimited edition that can always be purchased. The sales behind it are going to systematic dismantling, giving funds to people who really need them. The star is a readymade material, which relates to the rest of my work—I’m creating this recombined sculpture. But it’s one of the most overtly political works I’ve ever made. The statement is made through where the money goes, and through the severed flagpole—the severance of ideology. Without a flag, we’re removing the ideology. The same way that something is removed in Riser, or these Hub works with a small drain, you’re looking at the support structure of a [symbol] rather than the symbol. I’ve been thinking more about the support structures of our imagery as the imagery, which I think is what this moment is all about ideologically. We’re thinking more about our support structures and the systems that have failed. Embracing failure is the only way to move forward if we want any chance at a more humanized world.