Max Manning


Max Manning is an artist who recently moved to Texas, after living and working in Kansas City, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Two Dimensional Studies from Bowling Green State University in 2011 and his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati in 2014. Max has exhibited work nationally and internationally and is currently represented by En Em Art Space in Sacramento, California. His paintings have been shown in The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati Ohio, Espacio 20/20 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Le Practicable Espace D’ Exposition in Rennes, France. His work can be found in Fresh Paint Magazine and Studio Visit Magazine, in addition to his website,


The artist of today lives in a both cumbersome and liberating realm of infinite resource. Indeed the possibility of originality has long been declared dead. Does that mean the artist shall forfeit his or her pursuit of creating work that could expand the ever-elastic waistband of art? Or should he or she stubbornly persist, along the way borrowing and stealing the cloaks of past styles and the shields of isms?

The aim of my work is to be retro-contemporary but not retrograde. That is to say, that, in my own naiveté, I am optimistic to encounter a dead horse along the road and beat it back to life. Once beaten back to life, I may attempt to relate these isms to contemporary human experience. Hopefully, this yields allegorical images that stand upon the timeline of art history with one foot on the past and the other on the present. I approach the history of abstract painting through a cubist lens, exploring paint as object matter and painting as subject matter.

Metaphorically the image plane could be viewed as an immovable object, and though my mind is far from an unstoppable force, it is my hope that when these two meet, the material evidence of this incident will be an image-object of artistic merit. My process is a pendulous alteration between automatism and analysis. The canvas, however comprised, will absorb explosions of raw expression as well as moments of highly controlled focus.

My work is a culmination of stolen ideas, isms, and a great appreciation for the history of painting. Combinations of starkly contrasting visual elements melt together to form images of imperfection. This anarchic visual dialect that I have chosen to adopt speaks to the disorientation one can experience from today’s constant flood of technological over-stimulation.

Bearing in mind the privilege and miracle of this highly developed technological age in which we exist, I am interested in the thinning line between the artificial and the real. The plastic pictures I create are expressions of my own interpretation of the struggle that exists between the visceral, the primal and the artificiality of contemporary human experience.

Q&A with Max Manning
by Emily Burns

Hi Max! Can you give us some insight into your process? Do you plan your compositions beforehand or do you work intuitively?
Hi! On that polarity, I err on the side of working intuitively, but I can’t really pick one or the other because I spend a lot of time thinking about where a painting might go and occasionally even make rough drawings or notes with potential material combinations. Ultimately, if there are plans involved, the plans are subject to change. I often like to describe my approach to painting as being improvisational and reactionary.

What role does drawing play in your work?
Drawing sneaks its way into my work quite frequently. It’s certainly not something I would be aware of as I am working on a piece, but I do think a lot of my recent paintings are hop scotching lines between painting and drawing. There is a real dryness of surface in much of what I’ve made in the last three years or so, and the way some gestures manifest themselves physically are probably just as in touch with drawing as they are painting. Many of the gestures that remain visible in the final image of a painting become lines that take on a figurative role in the work.

You mention in your statement that you look to the history of painting as a reference—are you looking specifically at any work in particular or thinking more theoretically?
I am thinking more theoretically, but I am specifically interested in movements associated with modernism. There is a give and take there, and I often fear I’ve given myself too much credit in my statement in the self-awareness category. Sometimes I find very direct connections with what I am making or even start with some specific ism in mind to riff off of.

For instance, I have been working on these watercolor looking works on paper that I think of as being illustrations of certain art historical metanarratives. The important thing here is that what all of these elements add up to doesn’t need to make sense. I’m reaching for something more complex than any concretion I am capable of understanding. The way many of us access information today has altered not only the way we process information but the nature of our relationship to the idea of understanding, and I think my paintings reflect that. There is an irony in investigating haste in a slow and pensive process. Even if I have one association with a painting, I want there to be open-endedness that allows the scope of my work to be inclusive.

What role does pattern play in your work? Are you looking at pattern references?
I don’t typically look at a lot of patterns as reference, but I tend to gather images of things I stumble upon in life that peak my visual interests. I use pattern to create space and to establish color relationships. Pattern can create rhythm, it can be seductive, it can unify a plane or section within an image, it can be the depiction of repetition, it can be meter, or it can be pattern. I like pattern because simple order is beautiful in an incomprehensible world.

I noticed that you tend to work with acrylic, but much of your work has the effect of glazing. Can you talk about the choice of materials in your work?
Acrylic paint has drawn me in because it is plastic and I got hooked on the idea of plasticity early on as an undergraduate student. Plastic also seems to be a great metaphor for this sort of kitsch association I want my work to have. I started painting on raw canvas with much different intention when I first did it, and I noticed that it almost looked like a velvet painting.

As for the glazing, yes that’s pretty much what’s going on. There is a similar mentality of building up a painting with its surface and color relationships that comes out of a pretty classical technique, but I’m doing it in a really direct and sometimes off-handed way. I am fortunate enough to have gone through a wonderful painting program as an undergraduate at Bowling Green State University, that gave me a great respect for painting technique.

Many of your paintings are on canvas over panel, but the panel appears (in photographs) to be very low-profile and irregularly-shaped/not perfectly rectangular. Can you talk about this decision and how it developed in your practice? Does it carry any meaning or reference to a particular work or artist?|
There is a bit of a glorification of the handmade in my work that is playing off of ideas of mass production, and through that notion the energy from the shape of the whole image echoes inwardly to impact the energy of its parts. Other than the shape, they are fairly standard in their construction—plywood panel and pine cradle.

On this front, I find myself being influenced by a multitude of different artists who have dealt with the objectness of a painting in different ways rather than this referring to a specific bit of art history. Much of the success and failure that happens for me in the studio is a direct result of this early phase of making a painting. Some of the panels have been too elaborate and dictate too much of the conversation with the image that occurs. Often times it’s these paintings that don’t make it out into the world.

Can you elaborate on the section from your statement, "The plastic pictures I create are expressions of my own interpretation of the struggle that exists between the visceral, the primal and the artificiality of contemporary human experience.” What is the artificiality of the human experience for you, and how is that exemplified in your paintings?
Well, really my work exists in or relies heavily upon a kind of painting about painting discourse or framework. But the formal arguments at hand in the paintings are supposed to suggest a kind of disharmony of language that reflects my own disharmonious experience as a member of society. So on an experiential level the paintings might be giving a viewer this sort of drama of finding inner peace or clarity of mind in a world that makes it difficult to do so. In my mind, certain painterly elements at play in the work become emblems of movements in painting and are jammed together in a composite or collage type image. Color plays a big role in the sort of affectation I am trying to achieve as well.

Artificiality in human experience is harder and harder to distinguish, at least from my perspective. If we communicate with each other digitally, we are still communicating, but for some, similar interchanges are believed to bear less consequence of Reality. If people look at my paintings on my website, they are still looking at my paintings as far as I am concerned. So this is where the line gets thinner.

What is a typical day like for you?
Well, I recently started working in the Art Department at Sam Houston State University as the gallery coordinator. This has certainly changed my definition of a typical day.

During the bulk of the academic year, we have openings almost every week. When I started last spring it felt a little bit like being dropped on a treadmill that is running at full speed, but I work with a lot of great people who really helped me out. I am also fortunate to be able to dedicate a lot of time and energy to my own work. I usually work early in the mornings at the gallery and work in the studio afterwards.

Do you feel like it is necessary to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I find it more difficult to leave that headspace than enter it. In these instances, mundane activities like going to the grocery store feel absolutely horrifying—no hyperbole intended.

What are the most important components of your studio?
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?

I used to be a total headphones kid in school; I still love music and love to play music and podcasts in the studio. However, I have come to appreciate a bit of quietude more and more in the past year or so. It’s never really something I do with a lot of conscious effort, but I sometimes realize after hours go by in the studio, that I haven’t been playing any music.

What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Mary Hielmann, Elizabeth Murray, Andrew Masullo, Tomma Abts, Thomas Nozkowski, Forrest Bess, Allison Miller, Peter Shear, Chris Martin, Chuck Webster, Trudy Benson, Lucy Mink Covello, Richard Tuttle, Russell Tyler, Jessica Simorte, Paolo Arao and so many more. I look at paintings on the internet like a fiend.

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I recently read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and I will admit that at least part of the reason I read it was because I wasn’t sure I would be able to. It’s a mind blowing book. I am not any kind of literary critic or expert, but I found the sincerity, amid all of the so called post/metamodern form, absolutely beautiful and moving.

Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Oh boy, I don’t know if I am necessarily in a great place to give advice, but I would almost always gladly take some. I have been one of these people who really embraced social media, and a lot of my best opportunities have been direct results of that.

Prioritize things like sending emails and working on applications and proposals for shows. I often have to remind myself of this, but I try to have a few projects along these lines going at all times. These exercises can be good for giving you a gauge of how developed your current body of work is.

Believe in what you do and be kind to people. The art world is small and it will be even smaller if nobody likes working with you.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
When I started grad school at the University of Cincinnati, Frank Herrmann, who is a great painter, recommended that I work small so I could work through a lot of ideas at the beginning of the program. That really changed my work, and it’s been something that stuck around. I still do things that way. Thanks Frank!

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
I saw a show of Forrest Bess Paintings at Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston a few months ago. Seeing some of those paintings in person was everything I had hoped it might be. The installation was really well done, the paintings had plenty of room to breathe—and they did that as well as talk. The frames were even stunning.

Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I recently started working with TW Fine Art in Brisbane, Australia. They have made multiple print editions of my work, which are available on their site. It’s been an exciting project for me because I’ve never had prints made of my work.

Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you so much for taking the time and for asking such great questions!

Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!

To find out more about Max and his work, check out his website.