18 April 2012

Questions of the Face: Mike Maxwell

Ol' Geezer
(2006 or 2007, acrylic on paper)
   There is not just something of the rebel in Mike Maxwell, there is everything of the rebel in him. Coming from East County and born into an artistic family, Maxwell learned to paint from his grandfather, and in 1999 got his professional start working for graffiti and design legend, Shepard Fairey. It was around that time that he started making connections with many artists on the graffiti scene, including Downtown's Pokez crew, like Rafa Reyes and Sergio "Surge" Hernandez. Since then, Maxwell has curated shows, been a featured artist at Art Basel, and had a movie focus on him and San Francisco artist Mike Giant. Maxwell has been painting his insightful portraits for years and that and his increasingly popular audio podcast are our focus today. 
300 Club (2009)
   Live free is Maxwell's mantra, serving not only as the title of his podcast and as the words that are tattooed across the front of his fists, but also as the ethos that he exudes in conversation and through his visual artwork. As for what sort of freedom he refers to, Maxwell discusses many kinds in his podcast and just as many are evoked through his paintings, but the most apparent is the freedom of independent thought and decision-making. 
   "If I go to a concert and they say 'Wave your hands in the sky', I don't ever do it...." Maxwell said during one of his podcast episiodes. "I don't stomp my feet at the football game... I can experience that [harmonious feeling] but I definitely stand outside and act as a viewer as opposed to a participant."
   It is that sense of stepping back from the crowd and refusing to conform just for the sake of conforming that energizes Maxwell's work, whatever the medium he's working in. But Maxwell makes it clear that an aversion to conformity doesn't mean he's a brooding, anti-social type. We hear it through the easy comraderie of his podcasts and we see it in his paintings. As a matter of fact, because of  his focus on human portraiture and his staggeringly deep connection with each and every subject, it is possible to view his ouevre as an ongoing expression of thoughts, emotions, and revelations for and about our species. In other words, Maxwell's paintings make up a collection of visual songs, songs of frustration and despair, songs of love, of discovery, and of hope.  

The Keeper of Records (2009)
   Among his painting subjects, we find glorious acrylic portraits of iconoclasts of all sorts: historical personages, philanthropists, pioneers in journalism, literary giants like Dickens, Dickinson, and Kerouac, and an assortment of visual artists, past and present. Maxwell identifies and celebrates these people, not simply because they are of a similar mindset as he is, but because they are people who seem to have understood the danger in conformity, and have put their efforts on the side of living free. 
   But to what aim? When we asked Maxwell if his goal was to wake people up and to foster independence of thought, he said: "I'm really trying to wake myself up foremost. I'm trying to become enlightened myself. If I can help others along the way than so be it, but it is not a set goal."
   Many of Maxwell's paintings from 2008 to 2010 feature his blue-toned people, which takes the emphasis away from realism and race, and highlights a sense of historical and spiritual impact. They boast a combination of line and color that simultaneously looks a century old and a century early. 
   About his piece, The Keeper of Records (2009), Maxwell says: "For me, tattoos are like a ink record of who I've been in my life. It's the same with all these paintings I make. They are like a visual journal. For this particular piece, I decided to tattoo a group of my old paintings from the year or two before onto this figure as a way to tie-in that metaphor of why I collect tattoos and part of the reason for why I make art."

The Cyclical Nature of Everything
And So It Begins (2010)

Everything I've Seen (2011)
I've Always Been
(2011, spray paint, acrylic, gouache on wood)

   In 2010, Maxwell's paintings began leaving out the chest, shoulders, and neck of his subjects, and isolated the face against some increasingly detailed backgrounds. The bursts, streaks, scribbles, and wild color choices are clearly not slap-dash jobs done simply for the sake of variety, but each section impeccably melts into its ajacent sections, electrifying the center, and creating a sum harmony that is worthy of daydreaming about.  
   "I've always enjoyed using minor pieces of abstraction in my work," says Maxwell. "Now, I'm letting loose and allowing for more of the abstractions to grow into the works."
    Allowing for more? We can hardly wait for that. Seeing these bearded faces floating in space, we found ourselves considering whether these were portraits of deities, like Father Time or the Abrahamic god, but Maxwell's response suggests the paintings may have different layers of meaning: "A lot of these works are about my interest in physics. The TAM moniker is a homage to a departed friend."
   As for whether he was his own model for these pieces, Maxwell responded with some surprise: "Me, as in a self-portrait? They're all me in some strange way, but not intentionally."
   About the predominance of beards and mustaches, the artist says: "I like the use of heavy facial hair to represent our animal nature that still exists. It represents our survival mechanisms that are seemingly lost due to the comforts of the modern world. I think in this context the eyes are about awareness which could easily translate into wisdom, but more specifically [they are about ] self-awareness and the usefulness in experience."

The Central Nervous System
The Source
(2011, acrylic and gouache on wood)

   In 2011, Maxwell went even deeper into his conceptions of face, literally. The Central Nervous System, by seeking to identify the core of humanity, achieves many successes, including a humorous response to the adage "Don't judge a book by its cover", an evocation of masked political rebels, and a continuing of the social aim of showing people apart from their outer appearance. 

The Path (2011)
   In The Source (2011) and even moreso in The Path (2011), Maxwell uses brightly-colored, wavy parallel lines to depict his faces, resulting in figures that look like they could be a different species, maybe even extra-terrestrial. About them, he says: "I would like to make some more pieces like this. I'm just beginning to deconstruct these faces into pure energy as opposed to perceived matter."
    But beyond being simply a glimpse of people in terms of pure energy, these pieces also seem to be depictions of people who have attained enlightenment, as evidenced by the titles of the pieces shown here as well as of a similar piece from 2011 titled The Enlightened

This Modern-Day Shaman
   One possible reading of this loose series is that people who have come to be fully self-aware, to the point that they understand their physical make-up and the way in which they connect to the rest of the physical universe, are truly enlightened beings. And so in a sense, this is one of the ways that the enlightened view themselves and others, in terms of energy rather than details of the skin. But however we look at them, and whatever particular truths they evoke for us, these works are truly astounding and proof that, as excited as we have been about other styles and subjects of painting, portraiture still has the power to surprise and enlighten.   
   "Yeah, [faces have] been a life-long obsession," says the artist. "It just happens to be what I find most interesting to paint. Everyone is so different but made up of almost the exact same parts, in almost the exact same places. Everyone has a story in their face. It's just fascinating to me."
   By studying human faces from every possible angle, outwardly, scientifically, and spiritually, and daring to present his visions in new ways, Maxwell is still proving very much the rebel. We think somewhere Patrick Henry is proud.

[To listen to Mike Maxwell's Live Free Podcast, click here. And for more information on Mike Maxwell, feel free to visit his website, which links to his blog, at: mikemaxwellart.com.]

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