Interview: Max Maslansky’s porn-painted sheets

Max Maslansky
Max Maslansky, Dr. Feelgood (pillow case), 2016, acrylic on pillow case, 26 x 17 inches.

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein / Max Maslansky is a Los Angeles painter who makes acrylic paintings on stretched pillowcases and bed sheets using imagery culled from vintage pornography. They depict stylized and often-dreamlike pictorial spaces, ones that can grow more ambiguous the longer you look at them. At his NADA solo show with Five Car Garage, he will be promoting an upcoming monograph, Used Paintings, to be released in spring 2017 by Not a Cult Media. It will include texts by Laura Kipnis, Jacquelyn Davis, and Michael Ned Holte. I met up with Max at his solo show at Dutton in the spring. There, we talked about his life, his evolution as a painter, and his interest in Sigmar Polke.

Max Maslansky
Max Maslansky, Rolled Lovers (Half Twin), 2015, acrylic on bed sheet, 37.5 x 39 inches.

Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein: I’ve read that your dad was from Queens. Why did you grow up in Hollywood?

Max Maslansky: Well my father grew up in Queens, went to Bard College upstate to study literature, then moved to west coast. There helped start a public relations firm, met my mother on the movie set of “The Day of the Locust”, and they settled in Hollywood. Both my parents were in the entertainment industry, but they had bohemian leanings. They loved art, theater, and literature as much as film. So I grew up in L.A, but later went to Bard College like my dad. That’s where I studied with Amy Sillman, who was teaching undergrad there at the time. I also studied there with Medrie McPhee, Elizabeth Murray, and William Tucker, and others, who were my immersive introduction to contemporary art.

RKS: After Bard you moved to New York City to work in publishing. Did you have design experience prior to that?

MM: I had zero experience. When I got out of college and eventually got the wherewithal to move to NYC, I needed a job right away and went to monster.com in desperation. After sending out seven or eight cover letters one day, my last one was delirious and idiotic. I sent that one to a major publishing house on 6th Ave.  My eventual boss there, who happened to have a sense of humor, thought it was hilarious and just wanted to meet me. I later got the job somehow. It was a corporate gig ultimately, though. By the time I got into grad school at CalArts I was so happy to get out of there. I worked there from 2000 to 2004, which in your twenties is like an eternity.  So, when I was doing that in New York, I eventually got a studio too. I worked a full-time job, trying to learn how to make paintings, and trying to have a social life. It was extremely frustrating. Needless to say, I don’t think I became an even competent artist until well after graduate school.

RKS: What do you mean by that?

MM: During a lot of my early education, especially in high school and after, I had a police force in my mind and I needed to get rid of it. It told me what I ‘should’ do, not what I really wanted to do. It really changed when I started painting on bed sheets because I wasn’t painting on a conventional ground. It didn’t feel like I was letting that weight of history bog me down as much for some reason. Sometimes those simple changes can allow you to grow.

During grad school I had an early start, showing and selling these paintings of invented narratives with a Los Angeles gallery.  But my second show there tanked, critically and commercially. After that, the gallery didn’t want to work with me anymore.  I was back to square one. That was 2008 or 2009. I was ‘in the woods’ for several years, painting images of these swimming pools as a way of ditching narrative. I was just playing with perspectival space, how the tiling around the imaginary pools could be manipulated in various ways with a very limited palette of black and grey. I call that period my “Goth Hockney phase”.

RKS: In 2012 you went back to a more figurative style?

MM: The transition was really when, during that fallow period, I started collecting images online and putting them into albums on Facebook. They were very carefully sequenced morphologically. Their narratives were self-propagating, based on formal properties and themes. Most of the images were pretty abject or disgusting even. However, I noticed I got a really good response and eventually self-published a book of them. The logical step from that was to find a way to paint from those images, but I was resisting that because I didn’t want to render something that was already perfect as a photograph.

Max Maslansky
Max Maslansky, Self and Selfie (pillow case), 2016, acrylic on pillow case, 24.5 x 18 inches.

RKS: But you were already spending all that time on it.

MM: Exactly, so I figured I might as well investigate it.  I did a show with Emma Gray HQ in 2010, featuring these paintings that were semi-loose re-interpretations of those images, but sequenced in the gallery space in the same way as the Facebook albums. That show felt fairly successful for my practice, but no one cared that much ultimately, so I thought “Well, I can’t keep doing this!” [laughs] At some point, I realized that I had accumulated a computer full of porn during this time I could eventually use to more productive ends. Painting pornography on bed sheets seemed like a happy marriage conceptually. Things just started to click from there.  The paintings got looser and got more formally complex. I was even more emotionally involved with them. I started getting more studio visits again, and things snow-balled from there.

RKS: Has it always been acrylic?

MM: I was always an oil painter, up until grad school. It didn’t seem like a big deal to make that transition and I don’t like the technical wrangling of oil paint either anyway: the drying time, the scraping, and the toxicity. I never looked back. I try to make it not look like I’m painting with liquid plastic, which is what you are doing.

RKS: Some earlier paintings are a little more brushy, but that disappeared.

MM: I always lost light in the painting when I added impasto; I was adding this stuff called fiber paste which tints the colors and causes you to lose that vibrancy. When I build up tactility, there is always a give and take. Looking at Bonnard and Matisse helped me realize that you gain more light by juxtaposing different chroma. That can still happen with impasto to some extent, but I have to be extremely careful. Even going back to high school my best work was always lit from within.

RKS: In this painting, Entering Exchange (Half-Double) its not really clear what’s going on.

MM: The idea of that one is that it’s an art gallery and a woman is climbing into a painting while the guard in ‘real life’ snoozes on the job.  Like all the work, it’s based on a vintage image and idea. Older porn seems much playful to me than contemporary porn does. There is a vaudevillian sense of costume and scenario.  Contemporary porn is a lot a more violent too, while back then it was your basic scenario dressed up in fancy garb.  I’m sure there were other things on offer, but it was much more pushed into the under-underground.  At least that how I want to see it.  I’m sure there is some pornography historian who disagrees [laughs].

RKS: I’m curious about the patterning work in your paintings. Sometimes it is in response to the sheet and sometimes not.

MM: It became a good method for me to get away from my natural propensity towards narrative, to have that pattern guide me formally throughout the painting. I’m just intuitively reacting to what the painting needs, rather than what I think it should have. It’s almost like a ready-made way to create a painting. It did occur to me that I could silkscreen stuff on, but that didn’t seem nearly as interesting to me. Another reason the patterns came in is because I was thinking about domesticity and how it undermines the gaudy nature of porn, how that domesticity hides the psychological and psycho-sexual lives of most people.

Max Maslansky
The Toms (Half double bed), 2015, acrylic on bed sheet, 37 x 54 inches.

RKS: Can you tell me about the eyes?

MM: The eyes are black-holes or mannequin-like because they are a psychologically distracting vortex for viewers and I want to stay away from that. I want these people to be archetypal entry points for anybody. There is a tendency in porn to have the man in the scene be invisible, to be a stand-in for the viewer and I wanted that to be the case for both sexes.

RKS: There are some formal and conceptual similarities between Sigmar Polke’s work and yours.

MM: I’ve liked his work for a long time and I actually flew out to see his show at MoMA in 2014. What I got from the retrospective is that he had this moral ambiguity that was really interesting. You couldn’t get the definitive sense whether he was a deep romantic or a parodist and cynic. Probably because he was both. There is a deep well of both irreverence and reverence at the same time. That really resonated with me because I feel that way about porn, and a lot of different things actually. Even beyond that though, his formal experimentation is so breathtaking, all the different things he tried. He was like mad scientist in a lab. I love that aspect of his work.

RKS: The viewer probably has so much trouble figuring out how he feels about the subject.

MM: Exactly, and in the same way I don’t know how I feel about porn. Is it an evil thing? I’m not sure.  A part of me thinks it is, but another part of me thinks it might be an absolutely necessary thing, like Halloween or clowns. Everyone thinks clowns are creepy, but if clowns didn’t exist something else would take their place.

“Max Maslansky, Five Car Garage,” solo booth, NADA MIAMI. Curated by Emma Gray. Deauville Beach Resort, Miami, FL. Through December 4, 2016.

Related posts:
Interview: Medrie MacPhee in Ridgewood
Dexter Dalwood’s disrupted images

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