Studio Visit
Jim Drain, Artist

It’s a wonder that Jim Drain isn’t a hoarder of epic, A&E-worthy proportions. Sure, nearly every corner of the 3,000-square-foot Miami studio he shares with fellow artist and girlfriend Naomi Fisher is crammed full of stuff — chains, knitted fabric scraps, yarns, paint cans, talismen, toilet tops, costumes, books, prints, past works, and parts of past works that have been dismembered, all jockeying for attention. But considering Drain has worked with 10 times that many mediums in his nearly 15 years of making art, fashion, and furniture — often incorporating junk found in thrift stores and back alleys — hey, it could be a lot worse. “My dad will find something and go, I got this weird thing I think you’ll like, and my friends do it too, and I’m like, I’m not a trash collector!” he insists. For him, the studio is organized chaos, perhaps in need of a spring cleaning, but stocked only just enough to facilitate his process of playful experimentation.

Drain’s multitasking approach to art started in the late ’90s, when he was a student at RISD. While living in Providence’s famed Fort Thunder building — a former factory settled by a group of cartoonists, printmakers, artists, and musicians who held shows and exhibitions there — he formed the art/music/performance collective Forcefield with several of his housemates, collaborating on videos, comics, totems, psychedelic costumes, kinetic sculptures covered in weird textiles and fake fur, and the experimental electronic music they took on tour with fellow RISD noisemakers Lightning Bolt. “I really enjoyed being in that ambiguous place, where we didn’t know what to call what we were doing,” he says. After graduation, he went looking for a unique discipline he could add to his repertoire and immediately gravitated towards knitting, a practice his grandmother had mastered and one that fed into his curiosity for discarded materials. “Providence was one of these major industrial textile cities, but it was a dead industry at that point,” he recalls. “There were warehouses just full of wool, and you’d find neon yarn and all kinds of crazy things.” Forcefield disbanded after an epic contribution to the 2002 Whitney Biennial, but Drain continued the work he’d started as a member, signing with Greene Naftali and showing his own paintings, drawings, videos, and fuzzy sculptures all over the world.

When I visited the studio earlier this month — a raw space tucked above a Jonathan Adler store in Miami’s Design District, which Craig Robins handed Fisher and her friend Hernan Bas the keys to five years ago, just before Drain moved down from Providence — all was relatively quiet. It was one day after the close of Art Basel, during which Drain had launched a solo show at the nearby Locust Projects gallery, a new sculpure at Rosa de la Cruz, and an installation wrapped around a fence at the forthcoming NE 40th shopping complex, where an OHWOW pop-up was temporarily parked. He walked me through the Locust Projects show — his mind still busy digesting the work he’d spent the last nine months preparing for it — then showed me around the studio itself, which he was about to shut down in order to embark on a 10-day sweater-making frenzy at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop. Here’s a look at what I saw.

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Drain learned to knit in 2000 from his friend Elyse Allen, a fellow RISD grad who had studied textiles. He practiced on her knitting machine while she went to her rug-repair day job, then purchased his own shortly thereafter. A decade later, it holds court in a corner of his studio, surrounded by multi-colored yarns and fabric scraps. The machine can be quicker than using needles, but it depends on the complexity of the piece. “The way it works is pretty simple: You have a carriage that passes over the needles and moves the yarn into play, or not,” he says. “It can do everything that hand-knitting can do, for the most part.”

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His best-known sculptures — like this one, from a 2007 solo show at Greene Naftali — demonstrate how Drain typically deploys those fabric scraps and homemade knits: Generously, and with abandon. The show’s slightly nonsensical press release at the time called it a “gender-bent amalgamism of bent tube steel and metal covered in a stylish frenzy of patterned fabrics, part Frank Stella and part parade float, part corporate sculpture and part strip club decoration.”

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Last year, Drain expanded his practice in a new direction, with a literal manifestation of his textile-making activities: A limited-edition line of sweaters for the influential fashion boutique Opening Ceremony, woven with pixelated patterns evoking brain surfaces, data flows, hearts, and video-game bricks. “My motivation with the sweaters and the furniture is to make art that can also be seen as functional,” he explains. “But the question is, do I want to have a fashion label? No, I don’t, but I still love making these. And I feel like it’s artwork in the context of a fashion store — they’re all one size, my size, and they’re not friendly to a consumer in that way, so it’s sort of like take it or leave it. Making it difficult in that way is a good compromise.”

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The front area of the studio next to the knitting machine is reserved for inspirational items, starting with the rack of clothes at left — it holds thrift-store finds, costumes from past videos and performances, and items handmade by Drain’s grandmother, which he rescued from the trash after she passed away. “She was an artist, but she never called herself an artist, and no one ever recognized her,” he says. The polka-dot tiling on the wall was a remnant from the studio’s past life as an exhibition space; it was made by L.A. artist Jorge Pardo. “Above it is a life mask of Michael Jackson from the Thriller era,” he adds.

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The shelves above hold more treasures, including art by Drain’s friends, clockwise from top left: Joe Buzzell, Jungil Hong, Dearraindrop, Josh Smith, and Jungil Hong again. “The black box is a decoupage wooden purse my grandmother made, and there’s also a teapot my sister made and a wooden bowl turned by Naomi’s dad. On the shelf below are two egg vignettes by my grandmother, a Virgin Mary figurine that always was on my mom’s perfume tray, a Glitterlimes candy figurine pin, a Mike Taylor skull print, and a humping unicorn ornament by Joanne Kalisz. The white ceramic bell announced my parents’ wedding and the leopard skin is from Brian Ralph — it made me think how weird and far-removed leopard print has come from the original source.”

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A wall where Drain has pasted up samples of the metallic colored goat skin he’s using to embellish his new sweater series. At left is a small portion of the piece he made to wrap the fence surrounding the empty lot that will soon become NE 40th, a high-end shopping center whose owners plan to incorporate contemporary art installations and the new Miami headquarters for OHWOW. To make the hundreds of panels for the work, which debuted during Art Basel, Drain invited students from the local Design Architecture Senior High to help him melt crayons onto paper for a stained-glass effect. He then scanned those and paired them with images of the lot itself, printing the whole composition onto the same mesh vinyl most outdoor ads are made from.

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The original crayon panels were installed in the windows at Locust Projects as part of his solo show “Saturday’s Ransom,” on view now. They play on two of the exhibition’s main themes: his evolving relationship with religion, and the lasting impact of his childhood in general. Part of that meant taking on a child’s perspective — including revisiting techniques he actually used as a kid, like the melted crayons — and part of it meant exploring how the beliefs he had back then influenced the person he is today.

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“When I thought of the stained glass crayon drawings, I had been stuck — I had no idea what to do for this show,” says Drain. “But all the sudden it became easy to make the other drawings and collages; things started moving very quickly, and it spilled into the sculptures, too. It was making me think about all these childhood memories of my family. I also started reading about early Christianity, trying to figure out why we went to church every Sunday when religion feels so foreign to me now. I started seeing it as this phenomenon I could explore again, looking at the things I kind of still believe in and how it’s affected me.”

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In some instances, the work has a direct connection with childhood and religion; one sculpture is covered with plastic easter eggs, others use rainbow imagery. But this piece seems to be more about the present than the past. “The central part of it was taken from a different sculpture,” he says. “It was a matter of removing things until it was distilled to just what was necessary, so it feels more sparse to me now even though it still looks hectic. The goal is never this needs wood or this needs hair, it’s how do all these materials come together to become something more than what they are? The problem I’ve had for the past couple years is that the work became about featuring all the techniques I know, and it didn’t feel complete because there was too much there. So I’m moving in the direction of taking things away and seeing how they stand on their own.”

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The only pieces that almost never incorporate knitting are Drain's furniture, which he's put in several past shows — mostly benches, including one lined with ceramic toilet tops and one with stuffed denim. This bench was made in conjunction with the New York company Cumulus Studios, which commissions artists to create limited-edition outdoor furniture. “Naomi and I live in this building with lots of old people in it, and there are these metal grab bars for going up and down the stairs,” he says. “The benches are made out of grab bars we bought not from Home Depot, but pretty close. I have them painted by one local company and the base machined by another.”

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A row of the original bars lined up back at Drain’s studio, with part of a new project in the foreground: Wooden panels destined for a New York restaurant whose interior he’s collaborating on with Rafael de Cardenas. They’ll be installed next month at the base of a 6-foot-tall dividing screen made from wood woven around metal rods. “Each of the stripes you see here is a different piece of wood, and the easier thing to do would have been staining them before putting them together,” he says. “But stains bleed, so we ended up having to prime the entire thing and paint the wood grain back on. No one’s ever going to see this part, so it was a really anal thing to do.”

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Drain fabricates pretty much all of his artworks in the studio, clearing out floorspace on an as-needed basis. “This is ground zero,” he says. But because nothing was being made the day we visited besides the restaurant screen, it was busy hosting more random scraps, like this white piece of chain that broke off an old sculpture as it was being transported to Art Basel Switzerland in 2005. “I kept it as a reminder that everything worked out in the end,” he says, before adding: “I wish there was an ‘Australia’ font like the one on that tee.”

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Other space is devoted to storage, both of works that have come back from shows and ones that are in the process of being constructed — like the huge furry thing stuffed behind the ladder here, which Drain has been working on for two years but isn’t sure he’ll finish — or deconstructed. “The thing that’s nice about this studio is that I’ve made it so I can bounce back and forth between all this stuff, using it as inspiration or for the work itself.”

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Metallic pieces from a chair Drain once made out of gym equipment, and reclaimed toilet tops from the toilet-top bench, “waiting for a warm butt to sit on them.” That bench actually looks nothing like bathroom furniture once it’s painted and constructed. “The Design District is the best place to find garbage,” Drain notes. “The shops have a huge turnaround, and they all throw away amazing stuff.”

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This sculpture from a group show in Brussels — which Drain recently got back after it was stuck in the shipping company’s storage for two years (the zip code was wrong and then he forgot about it) — also has a childlike feel, resembling something like a parade float decorated by a fourth-grade art class. “I consider my studio a place where you can be really playful, so I needed to make this,” he says. “It’s sort of like you’re playing the role of a child with all these materials in front of you, and you’re not thinking, you’re just making. The adult side of you says, well that didn’t really work, but the child side of you puts it all together anyway. The problem is that it doesn’t really clarify anything — it’s only about activity, which is I don’t think is very interesting in the end.”

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The top of the same piece features fake plants and owls with googly eyes. "Really this sculpture would probably be best enclosed in glass and made into a gerbil village," Drain jokes. When I ask if he’s seen this Saturday Night Live skit, he laughs and says yes. “I think Rob Pruitt saw that same skit too.”

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One of the sculptures in the Locust Projects show also has googly eyes at its base, anthropomorphizing what are otherwise just chunks of painted wood. “Usually I know a sculpture works or not if it makes me laugh, if I think it’s ridiculous,” Drain says. “If I’m going to make a totemic sculpture, why not add eyeballs?”

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Humor, of course, pervades Drain’s entire ouevre, including the costumes he’s knitted for himself and bands like Le Tigre and The Gossip, and the ones he designs for his videos. He wore this homemade sweater to the opening of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, where his art/music/performance collective Forcefield created an installation featuring a forest of unearthly creatures undulating to a soundtrack of buzzes and clicks.

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Drain had this custom skeleton suit fabricated for a video installation last year at Texas’s Blanton Museum. “The main character was kind of like a zombie, but playful,” he says.

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In terms of wearables, though, most of his energy is currently going into the sweater project he started with Opening Ceremony. He’d like to do another series with the store, but for now he’s channeling his new ideas into the pleated sweaters he’s making at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop. When he eventually shows them, it will be with a sculpture that echos the pleats, “so there’s a conversation happening between them,” he says. “That’s my next goal; I want to try making furniture and sweaters that relate to my sculptures but are separate.”

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All of Drain’s sweaters are knitted with fine wools sourced from a company in Maine called Jagger Spun. “You start to realize why some materials are so expensive, because they’re such a pleasure to use,” he says. “It becomes fetishistic sometimes. When Naomi talks about her oil paints, it’s a similar thing. There’s a color she’s using that’s a classic ochre. Everyone makes an ochre, but only this one company makes the classic.”

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Also residing in the studio is Drain’s collection of old books, magazines, calendars, and other printed ephemera, many of which get cut up and used in his paintings and collages. For the Locust Projects show, he sought out old bodybuilding magazines, using them to question another childhood belief system — what it means to become a man, and to experience adult male sexuality.

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“As a kid, this is how I imagined it to be,” he says of one of the collages those magazines spawned, pictured here. “And it turned out not to be that way. The world is very different from what I imagined.”

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Another selection from his library, a manual of sex positions found at a flea market in Berlin for 4 Euros. “It’s so mundane and scripted, so German, where it’s like we’re going to try to teach people something that has nothing to do with being taught,” he says. “A few years ago I made stickers from one of the images — of two people fucking in front of a wood pile — but we sent the file to five different sticker makers and they all rejected it. Finally we called a shop in Hialeah, which is the one place in Miami where you can get anything done, and the guy there was like no problem! I went back a couple months ago and they still had my sticker on the wall.”

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Next to the bookshelf hangs one panel from an installation Drain made for a recent RISD show, which aimed to recapture the spirit of the Fort Thunder days by inviting all of the original artists from that scene back to create new works. “The museum has an amazing turn-of-the-century totem pole, and I made a backdrop to present it in a different way,” he says.

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I also found this nearby, an exercise ball Drain admits to filching from Naomi’s side of the studio. “It’s pretty awesome, but she may not know I still have it,” he says. “I’ve been considering co-opting it for a sculpture, which she’d be very upset about. It’s happened before. She’ll see something in one of my sculptures and be like, ‘What the fuck? That was my sweater!’ I’ve become better at that, but it was hard at first.”

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The pink ruffled suit at left — which Drain identifies as a costume from the Philadelphia Mummers Parade — used to belong to the artist Miranda July, but she gave it to him willingly. “I got a package from Miranda one day,” he explains. “She decided I needed to have this. She was like, ‘I got this on eBay, but I don’t think I can keep it.’ I wore it for Halloween, and I put it in a show in England once, just as a joke. It was so amazing I wanted people to see it.”

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A collection of all the sunglasses visitors to the studio have accidentally left behind.

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The front portion of the studio, not shown here, was transformed early on into the Bas Fisher arts space, which Drain and Fisher now lend to friends in need of a place to show or prepare work. Last year they did an exhibition of drawings by local high school students, and recently they let the video artist Ryan Trecartin build a set there for one of the projects he was about to shoot. “We’re a non-profit, and we don’t function as a commercial gallery, so we’re pretty different that way,” Drain says. The space is funded by both grant money and special artist editions, one of which the pair presented at this year’s NADA show. This was the stencil they used to mark last year’s portfolio.

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Before I leave, I zero in on a plastic scrotum hanging from one of Drain’s shelves, not that I’m necessarily surprised to see it there. “I did a collaborative group video show with fifteen artists called Dadarhea at OHWOW in Miami, and the ball sack was used in one of the videos,” he explains. “My friend Devin Flynn who I worked with found it somewhere he described as a place with an old woman with porn videos in the front, and all these weird toys in back.”

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“In the video, two little squirrels are hitting on the ball sack like a piñata, and this other artist Brian Belott is writhing in pain," he says. New Yorkers can catch the show when it opens at Canada Gallery this February.