Essay by Nicole Blunt


If any one word pulls together an underlying principle among the cacophony of styles and media of significant art in the 20th century, that word might be context--startling, unfamiliar, physical, and shifting context. What a journey Duchamp's urinal started, jarring both our vision and our sense of decorum in ever broadening and unstoppable shock-waves to see fresh possibilities in objects never intended as art by re-contextualizing them in art-related spaces and art-related philosophy.

Context in the very old, very traditional sense, however, the sense before Duchamp, before Manet even, did not mean the tearing away from the familiar to create new associations, but precisely the opposite. It meant the putting into the familiar. A new idea was seated with old acquaintances through cross-disciplinary information and custom. Pre-modernist viewers respectively knew the operas and plays in the France of Louis XVI, the poetry and love songs of the 17th Century Venetian Republic, or the compendium of folklore in 16th Century Flanders, and they used this knowledge plus the occasional historical event or two as appropriate general information in which to view the subjects of works of art. Leo Steinberg wrote of this scaffolding of knowledge shared by the arts and of which contemporary audiences were informed, in his landmark essay, "Modern Art and the Plight of its Public." With a common pool of facts at hand, then, the artist was free to make art in which he could invent aesthetic values and interpret content confident that the audience would at least understand, if not accept, what he was creating. Unless today's artist chooses to dip into the pervasive pool of popular media culture, or to a far lesser degree, religion, it is hard for him or her to make much use of a universally shared context, simply because information has become too vast and diversified for it.

David Maxim's pictures play on this earlier, traditional meaning of context. The intended subject matter of a Maxim picture is not perhaps at first obvious, but once the viewer is given the key to the image through title or other footnote, they are free to use the springboard of various background material, both cultural and personal to "get into" his work.

For years David Maxim has dealt with imagery made of constructed elements which were usually interpreted as abstract paint machines--arbiters of pigment versus surface that projected from the painting into the viewer's space. These "abstract" apparatus pictures have a distinctive and uniquely identifiable stage presence, both from the perspective of the proscenium and behind the scenes.

The theatre stage developed as a key metaphor for Maxim. And in an ever expanding way. The first, backstage metaphor, was based on the apparent revelation of the artist's process of construction with his "machines." This was brought about by reversing the canvases to the back side, and using ropes, balls, nets, and other components as mutable painting implements, then leaving them attached to the finished picture. The balls and other devices became part of the mechanical operations which revealed the "magic" of creating the work. In actuality, however, they only pretended to do so, for their impact on the true process was only partial, and it is from this point that the illusionary aspect of the stage from the front side began to grow. From the audience's side we are invited to witness the implements as protagonists, releasing further and further the potential to develop the drama of the painting's surface. Like primal actors, the machines move ever closer toward the picture's denouement. But this is a paradox because paintings, as static objects, are locked out of the continuum of time.

Aside from the stage metaphor, the concrete reality of Maxim's forms and their causal relationship to the paint surfaces make them appear to be painting, yet almost not--abstraction, yet almost not. With the intensity of imagery, the frequency of mythical titles, and the alignment of forms to canvas clearly reflecting a "hands on" relationship to the human body, the pictures take on psycho-dynamic meanings of force, power, confinement, and sexuality.

The parallel to the stage, though, continued to develop further. Maxim began to incorporate marionette-like male figures in addition to his abstract forms through the 1990s. The clear representation of human images which are based on contours of the artist's own body, either whole or fragmented, may result from his commitment to drawing from the model regularly since the early 1980s. Maxim originally established a drawing group to help sharpen and consolidate his skill with the graphic media, unsuspecting that it would also enlarge his painting imagery. In addition, the artist grew to love drawings as objects and as process, and he executes many each year, some related, but mostly independent of, his assemblage pictures.

Looking at three pieces not originally intended as a group, we can see both the issue of context, and the theatre metaphor as it has expanded thus far. The composition of "Death of the Hero" was inspired in part by the dying warrior from the east pediment of the 5th century B.C. Greek temple of Aegina. Maxim's mortally wounded figure, still clutching his shield, is floating supine by means of supporting ropes. He is a puppet on a battlefield of exploding paint who suffers a destiny imposed by the will of an organizing principle whose powers lie far above and beyond the limits of the picture stage. A welder's mask which is used here as the warrior's helmet, can also be taken to represent the passing of the industrial age, and the risky nature of the artist's business wielding his skills with the combative paint. The mask and other metalworking paraphernalia came from Maxim's father, who was a welder by trade, an old man when the picture was executed, and a man towards whom the artist maintained unresolved feelings.

Three years later Maxim continued the theme of tragic loss in "The Divide." In this piece the title refers to the great division separating us from death. The now lifeless hero, assuming a continuation of events from the previous picture, is being carried off the battlefield by a comrade in arms with a tenderness of gesture that evokes a pieta of bonded male spirits. He carries his friend out from a red, white, and blue backdrop representing the generic patriotic colors of nation states. Thus the ensemble is a reminder of the price to be paid by commitment to duty, justified or not.

The benefit of context is quite illuminating for "Odysseus Weeps," the third picture of this group. Here Maxim presupposes a basic knowledge of the Odyssey of Homer, a favorite story which the artist has drawn upon now and again for his subject matter. It is far into the story that the hero Odysseus first appears. He is near the end of his ten year journey around the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and he has been continually frustrated in his attempts to return to his island home of Ithaca, after service in the Trojan War. Odysseus is seen at his most vulnerable and human moment, sitting on a beach crying--yearning to go home. Maxim depicts this first appearance of Odysseus and he therefore intends the picture to mean precisely what the narrative source indicates--a homesickness, a terrible, tearful yearning for another place in body and heart. The cagelike grid of paint behind the figure suggests imprisonment, or perhaps confinement to a predetermined destiny. Moreover, in the wake of the preceding warrior pictures, "Odysseus Weeps" is given the context of grief following tragic loss by death, and can be interpreted as a scene of closure for the other two. The stage metaphor is thus further amplified--we may view the pictures no longer as static, but as three progressing moments in a tragedy, and while a sequential narrative effect is achieved, the story remains on a general, universal level wholly consistent with the readings of Maxim's more abstract work. It is inconceivable given the events of our times that the artist's loss of friends to AIDS could have had no effect in the generation of these pictures.

"Einstein" by contrast is a tableau more reminiscent of Buster Keaton than Greek tragedy. Einstein is noted for using his famous "gedanken" or thought experiments to free himself from the paradigms of conventional thinking. He playfully imagined himself astride a speeding beam of light to aid in formulating an aspect of his theories of relativity. Maxim's "Einstein" is precariously clinging to ropes that trail behind a light beacon. The physicist's predicament humorously emphasizes his physical frailty, for the idea he is trying to land is of such enormous power and magnitude that it can barely be comprehended. If the thought experiment is tenaciously grasped by the immense strength of Einstein's mind, however, mankind's knowledge of the physical world will shift much closer toward illumination and away from darkness. In transposing a physical for a mental state in Einstein, the tremendous power of thought processes are made pictorial, and with good-natured comedy.

©1996 Nicole Blunt


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