Max Maslansky is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He has held solo exhibitions at Five Car Garage, Los Angeles; Honor Fraser, Los Angeles; Galerie Sébastien Bertrand, Geneva, Switzerland; and Dutton, New York. He has been included in group exhibitions at 356 Mission, Los Angeles; Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York; Galerie Lefebvre et Fils, Paris; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. He is the host of an artist-interview podcast entitled Riffin' archived on kchungradio.org and streaming on soundcloud.com.
Interview with Max Maslansky
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Max! Can you walk us through your process for a painting from beginning to end? Are you planning works out in advance in detail or working directly from photographic sources?
I always go into my archive of pornographic stills first to figure out what kind of scene excites me most formally. This becomes my model from which I make a small black and white drawing to scale of the stretcher I will use. Once I've completed the drawing, I project it onto the stretched bed sheet in colored pencil. At this point, this becomes the scaffolding of the painting from which I intuitively go forward. I do not look at the original photograph at this point, nor do I want it to influence the final painting. I then make changes to the projected version of the drawing and apply the first layers of color which dictates all my further moves. Completion of the next layers can take up to two weeks or more, depending if I get stuck. Because the surfaces I work on are hostile to correction, I have to be very strategic in what I do. I often break up the figure and space in such a way where spatial and anatomical 'logic' gets confused. This can open the painting up to new avenues I didn't expect. Using gesso in select areas accomplishes this, acting as a conventional support and eraser, whereas painting on the untreated bed sheet areas is like painting on tissue paper and can only be modified a certain amount of times.
What role does drawing play a part in your practice? Are your sources always present if/when you draw?Drawing for me is mostly a practical tool. It's my mapping utensil. It's about drafting a schematic of what I want to paint. I regret not having an independent, vigorous drawing practice, but my imagination is limited and needs to be prompted by something I am seeing or reacting to.
When did pornography become a primary reference for you? If it was a shift, what was a previous reference or series? What caused this transition?
It became a primary reference around 2010. For a couple of years before I had been making paintings from found images of strange scenarios from other cultures or subcultures. It started to feel stale for some reason, though it took me awhile to realize it. I had been painting these images on conventional supports, whose surfaces I had to nurture, sand, and fetishize. It was not something I enjoyed, really. When I realized I had a computer full of pornographic images—and I was sick of painting on canvas—it dawned on me that marrying this sexual content with a found bed sheet was an exciting idea. Also, I was also looking for a way to make a painting with watercolor effects; using untreated bed sheets could allow this in its purest form.
Plus, the bed sheets had all this psychic density to it. The invisible traces of bodies and their activities is a fuel to paint on them.
Can you tell us more about colored lambskin and your choice to use it as a material?
I'm always looking for another layer or element of meaning to add in my work. Leather seemed to be a perfect choice. The sex drive and death drive are often closely aligned. Leather is made from a dead animal. Sexual activity is the byproduct of urges for reproduction, love, lust, and recreation. Also the colors these lambskins come in are ready-mades, like the sexual content itself. My wife sews these leather pieces into the bed sheets, which adds another subtle element of meaning. They're really time-consuming to sew, though this isn't noticeable on the surface; and they don't read as leather in jpegs at all! In person, they sort of behave like trompe l'oeil in that these flat areas are actually somewhat in slight relief up close.
The surfaces of your paintings have a dreamy watercolor wash-like surface. How is this achieved?
I water down the paint quite a bit. I also spray the bed sheets with lots of water to let the pigment spread easily. This gets repeated until I reach satisfied saturation.
You have mentioned in a previous interview that you felt your paintings didn't improve until long after graduate school. Can you tell us more about that period of your life and what you feel helped push your work forward?
Like many artists, I had varying degrees of success in graduate school and shortly thereafter. How to maintain success, no matter what form that is, is never entirely up to the artist. In my case, I exhibited when I wasn't quite ready after a burp of 'success' right before. The show went terribly. This created a psychological trauma and forced me to reconsider what I had been doing. I lost confidence in myself and had to refine my skills or direct them to something that worked for me and not against my will. I had to shed old "police force" rules in my head. I simply worked my way out of it with years of toil and discipline.
It's sort of like what Alice Neel said, which I'm paraphrasing here: "If you're sufficiently interested and willing to work hard, you can accomplish anything". I don't know how to do anything else anyway, so I felt determined to push through somehow.
Where do you source the bedsheets from and is there any significance is associated with their origin?
I usually source them from thrift stores. I've lately been finding them on ebay because I'm looking for patterns that are very specific to childhood or have certain designs that excite me.
Did working on bed sheets change your approach to painting?
Strangely, working on bed sheets transformed my practice almost overnight. I felt like I had all these skills laying dormant that could not have otherwise been used on any other material. It made me realize that shifting a simple material can make or break you.
A few of your paintings also incorporate police as central figures, can you tell us more about these paintings in relation to the rest of your work?
Given our political climate in the Trump era, I felt like having police in my work seemed like an interesting thing to do. Role-playing in pornography and fetish activity has been going on long before anyway. Like in fetish activity, dressing as an authority figure can be sexy and/or scary, which adds to the complexity of sexual desire. Also, in the world of sexual fantasy, the police and the civilian are under a different contract wherein they're allowed to 'violate' each other without actual trauma taking place. Our voyeurism into this contract allows for us to imagine our own scenarios with authority that might never pass in real life.
Your figures often have a red/orange nose as a facial feature—what does the nose signify?
A comedian, whose name I cannot recall, once said that porn actors are 'sex clowns'. I also wanted to emphasize a certain interchangeability for each figure, like they all were essentially cut from the same cloth somehow. The olfactory senses are also a hugely influential aspect of attraction and repulsion. I remember a porn actor saying he hated it when actresses wore too much perfume. He wanted the natural smells to help him get excited. My red noses reference all of this.
You run a radio show called Riffin', can you tell us more about the show? How does this relate to your practice as an artist?
After awhile I realized doing it was a way to have an excuse to talk to an interesting artist for an hour. It's really hard to do this in daily life. I initially started it as a comedy show where each guest would just joke around with me. Over time, it became apparent I was not funny enough to pull this off, nor was I able to find guests who were willing to do this with me anyway. It slowly became a more formal interview kind of thing, where I ask each artist about her life and work. I allow for interesting digressions. I've since left Kchung radio have been doing it on my own, uploading episodes on Soundcloud.
I've been not doing it lately, but am ready to record some more soon.
Are there any common themes in your most recent body of work? What are you thinking about the most these days?
Common themes of late include childhood, bondage, cartoons, terror, ugliness.
What is a typical day like for you?
My studio days are Mondays to Wednesdays, while I work part-time at an art gallery Thursdays-Saturdays.
My studio days are usually started by copious amounts of coffee, coupled with some emailing and image research. I don't usually start doing anything until 1pm or later. I work best a night when there's minimum distraction. I'm often too tired to work much on Fridays or Saturdays after work for some reason. I like keeping that space open lately so I can be as excited as possible for the studio days. I am thankful to have a part-time job to keep me away from being cooped up in a studio too long.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Pierre Bonnard is my long-time favorite and I look at him the most probably. Lately, I've also been looking a lot at Florine Stettheimer, Jack Whitten, Milton Avery, Sigmar Polke, Marsden Hartley, Richard Hawkins, Francis Picabia, Tom Wesselmann, Ellsworth Kelly, Mike Kelley, and Varda Caivano.
What are a few of the stimuli or experiences that get you really excited to get back into the studio, particularly if you have been experiencing a spell of minimal inspiration?
Mostly looking at other artist's work and finding new things to get excited about. For instance, I've recently been really excited by crabs, the sea-dwelling kind. They're obviously a jokey metaphor, but I'm really just into how they look. I recently went to the Long Beach aquarium to stock up on some inspiration.
If epiphanies occur for you, where and how do they usually happen?
I think they occur mostly when I'm not aware of it, when the idea has turned into something worth its salt. I'll look back and think, "Oh that's where I got a big idea!"
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Physical discomfort, whether it be the heat or cold. Also if I'm depressed that will kill any groove.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I watch a lot of films. Sadly too much fucking television. I tend to read a lot of books at once and I take forever to finish them.
A film that totally influenced me was Chris Marker's "Sans Soleil". Also Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" is huge for me. I've lately been loving the recent films of Paolo Sorrentino. I recently saw a film called "Valley of Love" by Guillaume Nicloux that really moved me.
The books I've been reading lately: "The Living Currency" by Pierre Klossowski, "Guerrillas" by VS Naipaul, "Art Sex Music" by Cosey Fanni Tutti, "Sapiens" and "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Just show up. Over and over.
You are from California but went to school in New York and lived in the city for a number of years. What brought you back, and what keeps you on the west coast?
I lived in NYC for 4 years and by the fourth year, I thought it was a hellhole. I got accepted into Calarts' graduate program, so that got me back here at the time.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
Every time I think I've felt I've accomplished something, it's hard to feel it that long because the 'high' wears off fast. I'm always looking for what's next or worrying if anything will come up next.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Sound is important. It drowns out the negative voices in my head. I listen to a lot of podcasts of all stripes and flavors and lots of music.
How do you navigate distraction in the studio and in life?
I don't know if I can avoid distraction. It's become so ingrained in my life and our culture. It's kind of sick actually.
I'm still wondering if anything can be done!
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I have a solo show coming up in NYC sometime early next year at Sonia Dutton. My first monograph just got released by Not a Cult press. We're doing some events around L.A. very soon around its release. It covers the last 6 years of production.
I'm very proud of it.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Max and his work, check out his website here.