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Tastefully, Peter Makebish
By Ash Hoden
Peter Makebish is an easy man to find. On a sunny day he’s ordinarily seated in a fold-up lawn chair on the sidewalk outside the glass and steel facade of his dainty, 10th Avenue gallery. Cold or rainy and he’s seated just inside the front door. His is the kind of place that stands as evidence that the city of New York is not without its soul. It’s a kind of protectorate, as though, in a debate with a reminiscent friend who insists that all is lost, you could simply say “Peter Makebish Gallery” and you’d be drinking for free that night.
Concrete floors and white CMU block walls — at most there are about four pieces of art in the entire space, which is roughly 150 square feet in size. Usually he shows paintings but sometimes sculpture. There’s a stairway going to an equally modest space above. You might find a painting there too. Most visitors don’t make it that far. They stop and talk with Peter. And while they’re talking with him, one or two other people on their way to other places will stop to say hello as well. Peter knows people.
In a city that operates at the pace of New York it’s strange to find an individual who isn’t in a hurry; someone whose work entails relaxing in a lawn chair on a busy sidewalk and having casual conversations with people who are in a hurry, but are willing to stop for a few moments because it’s Peter they’re stopping for. Tell me the city is devoid of soul.
Imagine being in your early-twenties and having the world at your feet — flying all over the globe, staying for free in the nicest hotels, eating for free in the nicest restaurants, surrounded by celebrity and fame and glamour — and then having it all end while you’re still in your twenties. Two years, in and out. Myths were invented to relate those kinds of tragedies. Think Icarus flying too close to the sun. That’s some heavy, heavy deeply human shit to wrestle with at a young age. It leaves you asking questions. Who am I? What’s my place in this world? It cuts way deeper than: What next? But all you can do is move forward — deal with that last question and hope that it leads you to answers for the other, seemingly tougher questions.
Peter grew up in Red Hook, surrounded by nature in the Hudson Valley. He’s friendly and accepting of others in a natural, innate way, but I get the impression that these qualities were honed over time; that there was a conscious decision to be more that way. In his younger years he skateboarded, snowboarded, and played frisbee, but they had family in the city and he would frequently make trips to Brooklyn. “I didn’t like it, just because it was the city and it didn’t compare to where I’m from. I still have a love/hate with this place.” He was also surrounded by artists and musicians and grew up thinking he was headed in a similarly artistic direction. “But you don’t really know. You don’t really know when you’re like seventeen, eighteen. You think you want to do art when they tell you to take a major. Then you’re not quite sure if you want to do it.”
He majored in photography and art history at Northeastern University, briefly jumping over to geology “because it was a real major,” but returned to the arts when he aced his geology courses. “I felt it was legitimate once I proved to myself I could do a more scientific, left side major. I had great photography teachers, great sculpture teachers, and drawing professors. It was a great program. But afterwards I came to the city, after living abroad for awhile, knowing full-well that I wanted to do fashion photography.”
Peter planned to work with Mario Testino. “No doubt. I wanted to assist, I wanted to be in that world, I wanted to photograph.” He contacted Testino’s rep but they didn’t need anybody at the time. He faxed his resume nonetheless. Then called a week later. That call landed him a personal meeting with Testino at the Morgans Hotel. “I meet him. He’s great. He’s funny. I’m hired. I’m his assistant. I’ll travel with him to buy antiques in New York at the markets, then we’ll go to the studio and I’ll be on the shoot and I’ll load the film. I could load film, I could light, but I wasn’t good at carrying shit around. I wasn’t good at all of the assistant stuff. I was always talking to the stylists or the makeup artists. I was acting almost as if it’s my shoot. Mario loved the energy. We all got along well. He taught me a lot. So after I was working with Mario I started dating a supermodel and everything went zero to sixty in like four seconds.”
They met at an opening during fashion week. It was April 1995. “Everything sort of changed. I got to meet a lot of people, the traveling was insane, the dinners were tiring after awhile…Famous people eating with famous people because they’re famous. I’m still petrified of dinners because of what I used to go to. But in that time, I mean, you’re exposed to so much too. That really did open it up. Probably hyper-speeded my life. I got to know so many people. I was photographing but really, you know, I was just her boyfriend.”
Going where she went, and—
“Traveling, and clients paid. It was the time of the supermodels. The client would pay or we had miles. You don’t pay for a hotel, you don’t pay for dinner, because it’s all on the client. So we’re traveling around everywhere all of the time, for free, and getting to do what we want. I wasn’t assisting. I remember Mario was the only one who would see me backstage at a show — I mean I hung with the coolest fashion designers. But Mario would be like, ‘You should be doing something.’ I remember almost feeling like he was hating me. Like, ‘Hater. Who are you to say something?’ But later on I still think about how he was right. Once that ended, what did I have that was mine?”
Because you had tasted the—
“Yeah man. And when you’re surrounded by all the biggest photographers and you’re on the sets and stuff, you don’t feel like you can go back and work with these people that saw you in a different way, even though the right thing would have been, you know, assist again and just humble up. You’re around all these people with a ton of money. You want to do something that’s going to give you immediate success. You’re hanging with all these people at their homes — Johnny Depp and the Bela Lugosi house back in the day. With me and Kate squeezing into his Porsche and going to the Viper Room. You just don’t think real after spending summers in Eze with Bono. Eating lunch next to Roger Moore in Monaco… The world was crazy. If the Concord crashed fashion would have died. I only took it twice, but everyone was going back and forth, Paris and London.”
When that relationship ended Peter landed in LA, face-to-face with: What next? He was hanging with a lot of the same faces as before, made a twenty minute film about it, then started a new project. “I did a music documentary with the [Smashing] Pumpkins in ’99. We did the last tour that they did with the original members. We never made anything with it, but I still have all the footage in my storage space.”
Did you party a lot during those years?
“No. I mean, a little. I wasn’t a full-blown alcoholic until probably two thousand and three. When I actually realized it. But that was when I began drinking on my own and it started to functionally… I was not a functioning alcoholic. I haven’t drank for like ten years.”
How did you come to that decision to stop?
“Um, there wasn’t one. It was like that time Forrest Gump stops running. ‘I’m going home. I’m tired.’ And that was it. There was no reason. All the bad stuff that happened — that doesn’t make you stop. You just had that moment when you were tired. And if you get that, then it’s great.”
Did you find more clarity of mind since then?
“Yeah. Drinking’s not good. I tried in 2010 to drink after going four-and-a-half years not drinking, and it went downhill fast so I had to pull out. ‘Ok, I tried to do the occasional fucking wine.’ Who wants a fucking glass of wine? I don’t. I want to get obliterated. Not Johnny Depp drunk, or white girl drunk, but, yeah, I wanted to get fucked up.”
After the Smashing Pumpkins tour Peter got back into photography, taking gigs here and there but it wasn’t paying enough, he wasn’t doing enough of it, and he was getting tired. “It was like running into a wall and then running into a wall and then running into a wall. It wasn’t happening. Keep it in mind that I’m with musicians a lot. Eric from Hole, who is a really dear friend of mine. I’m hanging with [Marilyn] Manson who was a close friend at the time. I was in the performance at Radio City when they did the 1997 VMA’s. Me and Scott from Anthrax are the security guards. We’re right behind him. It was like, ‘Fuck man, what’s going to be thrown at my head?’ It was full-on.”
Music found its way into Peter’s life in a different, more involved way. He was in his local bar when a DJ failed to show. “They asked me to DJ and I played and I liked it because it was a great outlet. It was like free being out and socializing and playing music you want to hear, so it was really a gift. Then I became sort of the hot DJ, or one of them, to do the cool trendy spots. That lasted for a long time. Then I wanted to get closer to musicians so I started asking if I could remix stuff — actually be able to get into the studio and take apart a song and make something. I got in with Warner Music. I was working, doing well. I had partners doing it — to produce, lay it down, engineer. I had a great drummer. I had an amazing guitar player with me — all different musicians that I would ask to do stuff. I was so happy to be living my dream of being able to be with these people that I respect and [who] love the music.”
But the digital age soon altered the market for both of these pursuits. The studios stopped putting up cash for the remixes because anyone could do the same kind of work from their computers. It was all done on spec. Also, DJ-ing was devalued. Serrato came out, eliminating the need for records and turntables. Show up with your computer, plug in, and go. “Clubs started hiring anyone that had good taste. Everyone was a DJ. It became about the look of the artist. You could be Young Girl, Young Guy. There would be people that would dress alike. There were so many Kitties. It was all about the image. DJs at the time were creating their branding, and I wasn’t.”
How did you adapt?
“That’s when I realized that all these pieces of my world that were flying around in space were coming together to form my universe as I know it now. As an art dealer and as a gallerist. I realized I had to do something that I kind of knew something about. I was familiar with the art world from being around people like Clemente, and Shifrazi, and Kenny Scharf, and John Newsom, who is a real dear friend of mine. I had to do something and I knew that taste-making is something that I was good at. Giving a room a feeling was something I was good at. You’ve gotta know what you’re good at.”
And you tied all of these worlds together?
“I knew everyone from all different walks of life. Kind of accumulating these fantastic relationships.”
Do you think that’s important for a gallerist?
“For me it is. Every collector I have I really respect what they do and what they stand for. So it’s real fun to be selling art to these people.”
Peter’s first show was in 2010. At the time he was still moonlighting as a DJ. Even though it didn’t pay the way it once had, DJ-ing guaranteed a certain monthly income. This transitional phase lasted three years. “It’s scary man. But naturally progression happens, you know. So in 2009 I asked my friend John [Newsom], ‘Can you help me put [a show] together?’ We got all these cool artists that he introduced me to, like Donald Baechler and Ross Bleckner, to do my first show which was called In Dialogue. It was kind of like taking two paintings and mashing them up like music to create a dialogue between the paintings. So I had six pairs. I had twelve paintings.”
How did you—
“It was instinct and aesthetics. Just take what I can from the worlds that I knew and put them together to do something I didn’t know much about, but I instinctively knew it would become something. If you’re sure of your aesthetic taste and if you’re sure of how you make a room, that’s the biggest thing is to feel good about yourself and to be confident. And I did. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. If that makes sense.”
It makes a lot of sense, yeah.
“I look back and I go, ‘Yes, it made sense for my first show to transition from another language, which was music — like mashing up two vinyl records and making another song. It was the same thing and it was how I was able to make sense of it. I feel like sometimes people need to kind of transition themselves, and get ready for the change. To this day people will be like, ‘But how did you do that? You came from music.’ Ok, let’s think about it. What is music? What is painting? Are they similar? Do they both speak to you? Are the artists intense? Are they quiet? I mean all these things are so similar between musicians, painters… It’s really weird for people to see you change jobs as if it’s absolutely different than what I did. Curating art — I’m making a room talk. It’s the same thing I did when I played music. If you have good taste, if you have good art, if you have elements, if you can make a room feel a certain way, then you just can do that. And that’s it.”
This is where Peter reveals how difficult it can be to discern the answer to, ‘What next?’ from the answer to the question of one’s place in the world. Your place in the world is not entirely about what you do. It’s about where you are. Right now. And now you’re here. And now you’re here. Your place is here, and then it’s there. Rather than simply finding a way through life that gives you what you want, or what you think you want, the bigger accomplishment is being able to adapt and remain appreciative throughout. Artists are fortunate to be able to do the work that they do, most notably if they can survive from it. But those who can appreciate the process, regardless of where it goes, are those who are blessed. Peter is both. He saw the process through and found his way to the work that he loves most.
“Not only has the art come together but all the relationships. A lot of people that I’ve known for twenty years have gone full circle and everyone’s coming back and becoming clients as well. It’s real nice to see all the support I’ve been getting. It takes a lot of time, especially in New York where it’s supposed to be a city of creativity. When I started a gallery I was thinking I’m never going to make it a place I don’t feel comfortable going inside. You don’t need to speak the language in order to feel adequate to go into a gallery. Usually the fucking red fell in the right spot. And that’s normally what it is. So you can speak that language and try and make people feel inadequate, but I feel like it’s the same as a song. When we listen to a song, you’re not listening to a music critic write intensely about it — going into the highs and the lows, the breaks and the drop outs. You like it because you like it. You look at these clouds, ‘Oh, I see a fucking poodle.’ I show abstract art, mostly. Heavy gestural… And people lots of times are feeling like they need to see something. I never see anything they see though.”
You mentioned that you felt like painters were a lot like rock stars.
“Yeah. I mean painters are weird. Musicians are weird. I’m weird. At least I’m told I am. But not everyone gets them. They’re usually over-sensitive.”
Do you think the fact that you relate to this crowd gives you a sensibility for what they’re doing with their work?
“Well I think as time goes on you really start to distinguish — and it’s kind of a blurry line when your tastes sort of take that turn — but you really get distinctive, and distinctively certain of what you’re liking. And also your horizons broaden.”
What about wife and kids and stuff like that? Have any interest in that?
“One hundred percent. I’m engaged to a beautiful woman. And I have a twin brother. He has three girls, one is nineteen, one is sixteen, one is eight. Yeah man. That’s something that can only happen when you love someone — to have a kid. You get them and then it’s time to have kids.”
Have you been close to being married before?
“I’d say close to being engaged. In New York — there’s a lot of distractions here. You can easily let twenty years go and you’re still young in New York. I’m forty-four. I’m young here. Everyone I know is having kids now — that’s in New York. Not in New York, they had kids at twenty-five. I’m happy and lucky enough to find it now, and to be with someone that I really feel like I’m ready to have a kid with.”
Do you have any important life lessons that you’ve learned?
“No. I mean every time I feel like you learn a lesson there’s always another to be learned.”
I think that is in itself a good lesson.
“You can only stay focused, be yourself, be nice to people. There’s no life lesson you can learn until it happens. Then you learn another life lesson. I feel like we learn until we’re done. Until we’re ashes. It’s eternal. It’s like the snakes eating each other. What is that, the sign of eternity? But that’s all philosophical stuff. I always am learning lessons, then I don’t know something, then I know something I thought I knew the answer to… It’s hard to see yourself grow. You know it’s happening. You’re looked at differently by other people but lots of times it’s hard to look at yourself. I’d like to see me outside from me. From how I was to how I am now. Just put me in a room with the person I was when I was twenty-five, and look at it.”
And have to sit with it…
“Yeah, and like talk. What would he say to that question if you asked that guy?”
I’m guessing he would say: don’t fear the sun.