I'm so thrilled to be able to share the stellar paintings of Los-Angeles based artist and curator Max Presneill today! Purposeful layers and relationships between forms are utilized in his ongoing exploration of themes relating to mortality, presence, and existence, as well as politics. I love the complex color and shape relationships, which in turn begin to reveal denser and more nuanced suggestions of painterly dialogue just beneath the surface. And this interview is on point!
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Hey Max! First, can you tell me a bit about yourself? I know you're based in LA; are you from there originally? When did you first start to explore painting or art making?
Well, I am originally from London and moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago now, but still have not lost my accent at all. I began drawing comic book heroes as a kid like many artists and eventually took more and more interest in art. Being a bit of a troublemaker at school, art gave me something to dive into. After reading Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting I recognized a calling and have been at it ever since. I went to art school and managed to sneak my way past the BFA and MFA courses before ending up teaching painting at a university. Then I crossed the pond...
You use the word "redacted" as a key concept in your painting, which implies erasure, often used politically. Can you elaborate on that?
The paintings shift continuously between concerns about mortality, existentialism and political ramifications. They are about each and all at the same time. The mark and its erasure reflect these - either by presenting the most basic abstract marks as signs of presence, or as illustrations of the existential need to enact, to select meaning and move along with engaging with it, or with highlighting the constant struggle that the individual must maintain in the face of Power - the reassertion of ones right to a voice when it is being covered, suppressed or redacted.
You describe painting as having political possibilities, and that you experiment with the persuasive potential of painting as political act. What have you learned about its capabilities or limitations in this vein?
The political aspect is difficult and is a source of much speculation for me. I believe that one must act. With integrity, with a sense of right, with what used to be called authenticity in older forms of existentialism. One selects and chooses meaning and then acts appropriately. Does it change anything? I am not sure, that gradually over time society can be shifted via forms of art, but I hope so. We have seen sea changes towards racism and sexism and to gay rights and these things happened because slowly the environment was altered by discussion, by TV, by us.
Regardless, one should act as if it indeed does matter and do the right thing, which in my case is to make paintings. That is my voice, and politically I must use it. Is it as effective for change as a Molotov Cocktail? Probably not, but I use my voice where I am most capable.
Formally, your canvases are abstract and consists of layers which emphasize the physical quality of the paint while suggesting underlayers we can no longer see. How do you get started on these, and do you work intuitively, or plan ahead?
They are quite loose and intuitive for most of their development, only becoming more deliberate as I approach what I think may be their ending. Which I am nearly always wrong about and hence end up reworking them again and again. The last stages are normally when I fill in what most people take for the ‘background’.
In addition to painting, you also curate, which as a practice unto itself has become closely intwined with your art practice. How have they influenced one another? Have you encountered any challenges because of the closeness of these two activities?
They are both about selecting information and assembling it to provide something bigger than its parts. They are a collage type experience, via Wikipedia-like access to multiple sources. I feel like they start with several key elements then find ways to move obliquely away from the center to allow complex networks of potential readings.
The biggest challenge is ensuring that other curators, gallerists, artists, collectors and critics are able to differentiate the two activities rather than consigning me to a simple box as one or the other. They are 2 sides of the same coin to me but other artist/curators I know often feel like they are allocated one role or another and not taken seriously, but separately, for both. I believe deeply in both activities and their respective values to culture. I see no reason why I should be forced into one pocket or the other.
As a curator, and as an artist, with a web presence, you make a point to mention that the images of your work on the website are "inaccurate." I think most would agree that seeing an artwork in person is the ideal situation, but could you elaborate a bit on your thoughts about digital representation of "analog" work online? Is it a necessary evil?
Seeing images online is the single greatest thing for artists and curators ever!! It allows us access to the world of art beyond what we can go see or read about in books and magazines, The whole world of international art exchanges has been revolutionized by it. But some artists seem intent on making work for the mobile phone - which is great as long as it is not painting. Paintings need to be experienced in real time and in real space, I feel. It is a one-to-one thing. Time matters.
So, for myself, I take photos of my work which are deliberately inaccurate - the color is adjusted on my mac, the edges are cropped off. Then I go back to the painting and continue working on it. It may only be a small thing but it guarantees that the online image or the images in catalogs and books are not the same as the actual painting. That hopes that people will seek out and face the real work to see it properly. A bit like people really - I like Facebook but my real friends are people I spend physical time with when possible.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received? Is there any advice you've been grateful you decided to ignore?
Be ruthless with your own work! Steal ideas where you can and adapt the best to your own practice but be prepared to do what the painting needs, whether you like the work or not - its needs can be different from your own in some way. Objectivity combined with crucial self-critique can lead to powerful stuff. Make hard decisions when necessary. Don’t like your own work too much and never get too precious with it. There will be others so all should be experiments!
Is there an obstacle in your career so far that felt particularly tough to overcome (creatively or professionally)?
There are always obstacles. It is part of our job to overcome them. From trying to find ways to get people to notice and engage with our work during our early careers to dealing with shipping internationally, we all face the same problems, I think. The trick is to remember it is a marathon, not a sprint, and keep running.
What do you consider to be the most fulfilling or rewarding aspect of doing what you do?
Talking with other artists about what matters to them, seeing the visual machinations of imagination. Cognition is fascinating and the objects we produce from it can be wonderful. Swapping art works with my peers is super gratifying. Traveling to other countries when I have shows is a life enhancing thing!!
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently developing?
I have shows up in Oslo (Norway), Frankfurt (Germany), Los Angeles and Tokyo at the moment and have some coming up in Brisbane (Australia), Manchester (UK) and more here in LA in 2017.
Curatorially I am working on shows of Cuban art (as part of the Getty PST program) and Korean art, both at the Torrance Art Museum which will be presented in 2017 and 2018 respectively, as well as the other shows in the program.
I am developing a new version of the Co/Lab Art Fair, a free event for alternative spaces, which I run with my peeps in ARTRA Curatorial - a curatorial group I formed in 2009 with Colton Stenke. As a member of the Durden & Ray collaborative group I am working on several international exchanges as well as getting ready to open our new gallery space in March - Stay Tuned!!
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