David Maxim: Giving in to Labor

David Maxim, The First Labor (Nemean Lion)

David Maxim, The First Labor (Nemean Lion)

Essay from STAGES: The Art of David Maxim, 2015

It is not uncommon to hear the work of David Maxim described as “heroic.” His works on canvas can measure upwards of 120” in height and 150” in width. I refer to them as works on canvas because it is difficult to describe them as paintings in any traditional or historical sense. Maxim calls them “constructed pictures.” Sculptural elements often emerge or hang from the canvas, extending 30” or more into the viewer’s space. These sculptural elements resemble archaic tools or weapons: crudely-made shovels, worn squeegees, bulky cudgels, aged construction beams, or globes wrapped in canvas and twine that suggest an ancient cannonball. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for Maxim to seek out as subject matter mythical or historical figures deemed heroes in Western culture. His artwork titles refer to, among others, artistic heroes (Giotto’s Circle, 1985), explorers (Cloud of Magellan, 1980), or biblical heroes (“The Miracles” series, 1980s). It is not surprising, then, that Maxim would eventually undergo what he calls an “intense campaign” of work (completed in less than a year) focusing on the greatest of the Greek heroes, Hercules.

Maxim understands “The Labors of Hercules” series as a “watershed moment” in his artistic career. During this time, the mid-1980s, Maxim began what have become standard or signature steps in his artistic process. He reversed the stretched canvas to reveal to the viewer the frame and supports that hold up and hold together the painted image. He constructed 3-dimensional components for each artwork in the series, and he used those components as paint applicators before tying or otherwise affixing them as part of the completed piece. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the “Labors” series, Maxim explored new ways to embed the human figure in his artworks . . . but more on that later.

Greek mythology tells us that Hercules, driven mad by Hera, killed his wife and six sons. Grief stricken and seeking penance, Hercules visited the Oracle Pythoness, who explained that he should serve King Eurystheus at Tyrins to atone for the horrific act. Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, initially scoffed at the idea as he considered himself superior to Eurystheus, but gave in and arrived at Tyrins, where Eurystheus ordered Hercules to perform ten labors. After discounting Hercules’ completion of two of the labors in which he received assistance from others, Eurystheus added two labors, for a total of twelve. A select overview of the twelve labors finds Hercules slaying or capturing powerful creatures such as the Nemean Lion, the multi-headed Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, or the cattle of Geryon, stealing the belt of Hippolyta or apples from the garden of the Hesperides, and cleaning the Augean stables. Hercules’ reward for completing these tasks is immortality.

Maxim’s “depiction” of the twelve labors of Hercules is not a naturalistic representation of bulging biceps and dying beasts. Maxim does not construct for the viewer 3-dimensional components that resemble the weapons or tools used by Hercules (to make such an argument would be quite a stretch), nor does he place the subject matter in a mythical land of giants, gods, and mortal humans. Maxim’s conceptualism is too strong for this kind of literal translation. I am more convinced that what inspired Maxim about this heroic tale is less the hero named Hercules and more the performance of labor itself.

David Maxim’s studio is in a former sheet metal worker’s union building. His father, a union man himself, encouraged the teenage David to work as a pipefitter’s assistant. At 18 years of age, David operated an industrial crane to move enormous pipe from one welder’s unit to another. Later, he worked on an oil refinery that was scheduled for inspection and overhaul, and assisted on a dry dock lifting lots of metal and cables: “all heavy, butch work,” as Maxim puts it. Maxim’s work as an artist was likely affected by the machinery and paraphernalia of such employ, and this inspiration is visible in the wire and pulleys found in sculptures like White Thought (1984), or the twine and hardware found in most of his sculpture and wall pieces. But it is Maxim’s familial connection and personal experience with manual labor that emerge most prominently from “The Labors of Hercules.”

The First Labor in Maxim’s series, for example, refers to Hercules’ slaying of the Nemean Lion. The artwork consists of a reversed canvas—stretcher frame and supports exposed—and two cudgels, handles extending to the right with the thickest part resting on a panel extending out from the left side of the canvas. The cudgels can be moved up and down by (the labor of) the viewer, and comparing the cover image of this catalog to the reproduction of The First Labor inside the catalog demonstrates how and in which directions the cudgels move. Hercules carried one club with him into the lion’s cave, but overcame and killed the beast with his bare hands, strangling it to its last breath. The cudgels then, only confusingly infer Hercules’ weapon of the legend, in that they are a pair. Rather, their meaning becomes clearer if the viewer sees them as human limbs. This is one way Maxim embeds the human figure deeply into the work in this series, but he pulls back from making direct connections to the myth.

The paint in The First Labor is splattered on the canvas, much of it applied by the two cudgels. The paint does not suggest splattered blood, nor does it take the shape, even in the most abstract sense, of a human figure engaged in battle with a lion. The labor depicted in the artwork through the trace of paint and the movement of the cudgels, is that of the artist. Maxim’s psychological and physical sweat, and his deep respect and appreciation for labor, all emanate from this artwork with tremendous pain, passion, and dedication.

In anticipation of the possible assumptions of some readers, I am not saying that Maxim sees himself as a hero (god-like or otherwise) who performs a series of labors for the immortality afforded to the likes of Da Vinci or Van Gogh. I am not saying artists are inherently heroes or that they are granted immortality through their works of art. What I see in Maxim’s work is a much more grounded, material concept of labor. I understand the “Labors” series as a nod to everyday work and everyday workers. This series is about labor, whether completed by an artist, a pipefitter, a teacher, a migrant farm laborer, a parent, an insurance claims inspector, or an electrician. The artworks in this series are the literal results of the movements of Maxim’s body: of his arms moving the cudgels or other 3-dimensional components; of his torso shifting to move paint-soaked implements from the floor to the canvas and across from one side to the other; of his legs moving him away from and back to the canvas as he applies the paint; and of his hands attaching the cudgels to the canvas. They are about the choreography of mind and body as Maxim predicts and analyzes the results of the aforementioned movements. The primary body embedded in Maxim’s work, and particularly in the “Labors” series, is the body of the artist performing the labor of art making. Maxim’s lifelong experience with and respect for manual labor, for the real work that people do every day, made the twelve labors of Hercules the ideal subject matter for him. Hercules’ heroism derives in large part from his accomplishment of these physical tasks and that, I believe, is the true source of inspiration for Maxim.

It is telling that the only truly representational artworks in this catalog are the charcoal drawings of the constructed pictures in his “Labors” series. These drawings demonstrate Maxim’s skills as a draftsman, and his impressive ability to create representational artworks when that is his goal. They also show the significance of balancing mind with body in thinking through the physical engagement of the painted structures, before, during and after their creation.

Maxim breaks down the heroism of Hercules to the work of interacting physical forces. On the most basic level, this translates into two cudgels pressed against each other or against some resistant energy outside of the canvas. It also refers to the artist struggling with inert matter and material, spontaneously developing a zen-like series of movements that become or replace artistic or aesthetic decisions. Maxim gives in to the labor of artistic production so that it can become the subject matter and function at an allegorical level for broader concepts of physical effort. It is in this shift, in this giving in, that Maxim asks important questions of the viewer: What is the value of labor? What does “work” finally amount to locally, nationally, and globally? What are the real costs of losing sight of labor’s importance to the growth and stability of any culture?

It is not surprising that Maxim describes his “Labors” series as the beginning of a productive period of exploration and discovery. For Maxim, the series opened doors to new artistic styles and techniques, and inspired him to focus his work on content relating to thoughtful human issues. Taking the time to explore the questions Maxim asks in “The Labors of Hercules” makes the series equally inspiring to this viewer.




Artists from L to R: Modesto Covarrubias, Angie Wilson, Ali Naschke-Messing

Curatorial Essay for exhibition at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, March 10-April 15, 2012

MarinMOCA’s Emerging Artists series features the work of Bay Area artists who do not yet have gallery representation, but whose work stands out both formally and conceptually. The 2012 Emerging Artists exhibition title, a play on the term “Indexical Marker,” refers to 2 key aspects of the work. The artwork is “indexical” in that it points to something else—it directs the viewer’s attention to and often becomes a trace of another occurrence or physical object. Traditional photography, for example, has been referred to in semiotic theory as an indexical marker because a photograph is a sort of record of another moment in which someone or something was in front of a camera, and it serves as a trace of its subject because it is literally produced as a result of the play of light and shadow across that person or thing. “Makers,” the second part of the title, refers to the ways the artists employ craft-based tactics in their artistic practice. To refer to these artists as “makers” acknowledges the historical divide between the creation of so-called “fine” art, and the craft traditions of making objects, of “making do” with everyday materials often degraded by art institutions.

Modesto Covarrubias utilizes knitting in his performance and installation pieces as a way to investigate psychological and emotional connections to physical environments. His knitting performances produce objects that serve as a trace of the actions of the performer, and his installations often engage the decor and design of a room, bringing attention to aspects of the space otherwise unnoticed by the viewer.

Ali Naschke-Messing’s thread-based installations poetically echo existing architectural forms or subtly chart the daily movement of light and shadow across the wall, ceiling, or floor. The daily movement of light and shadow may seem common, but it simultaneously hints at the grand, celestial movements of the planets. Her installations often indicate the everyday, while also hinting at the infinite. Her work is as much about the act of viewing as it is about the intricate form of her installations, as they require a form of patient looking akin to listening to a whisper.

Angie Wilson’s primary medium is used work shirts, physical traces of anonymous laborers, woven into Persian carpet motifs or other craft objects. Wilson’s artwork simultaneously weaves together questions of outsourced craft production, the mass production of the handmade, and the growing importance of re-usable materials.

INDEXICAL MAKERS are artists whose conscientious use of materials encourages us to patiently re-view our immediate physical environment, and to be mindful of the makers behind the seemingly simple, everyday objects within that environment.

-Heather Murray, Curator

Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Agent of Change

Mary Lindheim (L to R): Bottle, Iron Woman, Sun Vase

Mary Tuthill Lindheim (L to R): Bottle, Iron Woman, Sun Vase

Curatorial essay for exhibition at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art: December 10, 2011 – January 15, 2012

Mary Tuthill Lindheim: Agent of Change encourages the viewer to consider the historical and material importance of an individual who created with a true awareness of the impact an artist can make in and out of the art world. Mary Tuthill Lindheim (1912 -2004) integrated her life and artwork in such a way that a simple chronological exhibition layout would fail to capture the inspirational spirit of this incredible Bay Area artist. Therefore, visitors will find the artwork arranged according to the ways Lindheim served as an agent of change. As a fiercely independent woman, as an environmentalist, as an activist for social justice, and as a ceramicist, Lindheim fought against inequality. These four ways in which Lindheim served as an agent of change should be considered lenses through which to view and analyze her work. The four sections of the exhibition overlap in many ways, and the artworks in one section should not be seen as valuable only according to that section’s theme, however, I believe that a consideration of these particular artworks through these particular lenses enriches our understanding of the individual pieces, of the collection of work as a whole, and of Lindheim as an artist.

I, Mary, am a woman of intense and deep feelings.” Mary Tuthill Lindheim’s sculptures of the female figure and motherhood reflect the experiences of a strong, independent woman growing up in a culture suspicious of such characteristics as unfeminine, but in a family that encouraged such characteristics to flourish. At only 10 years old, Lindheim was given permission to travel on horseback with a family friend for 500 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona. Her father, Ernest Tuthill, was an Episcopal minister whose public stances for worker’s rights and against racism inspired Mary, but embarrassed her mother, Laura Tuthill, who regretted marrying, as she put it, “below herself.” Mary married early, at 16 years old, but the marriage lasted only 2 years because, as Mary explained, they were “incompatible sexually.” Mary had many romantic relationships, none lasting more than 7 years, and two, to brothers, ended tragically when Norvin Lindheim died in 1939 following a routine surgery, and Donald Lindheim, whom Mary married in 1941, was killed during military service in World War II. None of her relationships resulted in childbirth, but after staying with a Native American family in New Mexico while on a months long solo camping trip, Mary was asked to take with her a young girl in the family so as to provide her with a good education. Mary did so, and many years later, when the girl, Yvonne Yazzie, was in her 30s, Mary became her legally adoptive mother. This biographical information sheds a different light on the works included in this section, and one might notice that the female figures, such as Iron Woman , Standing Nude, or even the non-objective Green Goddess depict forms in active poses with strong, precise, confident lines, and a notable weight and volume. They are not lacking traditional notions of feminine beauty, but neither are they damsels in distress. Sculptures depicting a maternal relationship, such as Mother and Child, present a nearly non-objective mother serving as a protective shield, cradling the infant form, yet giving it considerable space and freedom. Source, a stone sculpture of another strong female figure, suggests through its title the concept of woman as the source of life, as a productive artist, or perhaps as “Mother Earth.”

There is a flow of silent music in stones . . . Pregnant with vibrations of billions of centuries.” Lindheim maintained a great respect for the natural environment throughout her life, and often settled in locations that allowed her to be surrounded by nature. She understood the smallest stones, pebbles, and shells as providing a spiritual connection from one generation to the next. In addition, she acted on behalf of the environment on a political level, forming the Save the Cove committee in 1959. Lindheim moved to Sausalito in 1952 and within a few years got word that a 36 unit apartment building was planned for the Sausalito waterfront. The Save the Cove committee raised $60,000 to buy the lots in question and prevent the construction from moving forward. She was instrumental in maintaining the character of Marin County that many of us now treasure as current residents. It is important, then, while viewing artworks like Sun Vase or Beach Series #1 to see not only the ways Lindheim literally integrates stones and natural forms into her work, but also to remember that Lindheim’s interest in the environment as an artist was linked directly to a level of activism that produced change in her local community.

Never count the cost of standing up for convictions.” At age 14, Lindheim joined the NAACP and initiated a lifelong fight for social justice. Lindheim met with senators in support of anti-lynching legislation, supported the war effort during World War II, traveled to Sacramento on behalf of veterans’ housing, organized artists against the Vietnam war, and participated in countless other acts of protest against injustice. Lindheim expresses her passion for social justice through her artwork on a decidedly personal level, however, refraining from shocking depictions of lynching or literal representations of Native American genocide. Instead, viewers will find artworks such as Voices of Protest, in which three bird-like figures reach hungrily into the air open-mouthed. Rather than galloping stallions or Greek athletes, Lindheim chooses to depict as voices of protest chirping birds in need of nourishment. She chooses an unassuming group rather than a thunderous single voice or intimidating herd. She seems to understand the importance of protest as necessary no matter one’s position or stature, and encourages her audience to develop a hunger for social justice. Artworks such as Universal Soldier reflect Lindheim’s complicated relationship with the concept of war, having lost a husband to war and been proud of his efforts, but not consistently supportive of war in general. Universal Soldier, made anonymous through abstraction and lacking symbols that might tie the figure to a particular time period, presents a contemplative figure, resting rather than wielding his/her weapon, somewhat unaffected by the bloodied mask pierced by the rod in the soldier’s hand. The title may indicate that the complications of war affect all soldiers, no matter the era, or it may serve as an analogy for the ways we all fight battles.

The potter, if he loves his own work as a creative art, must find his own way.” Lindheim worked in many and various media, but the artworks in this section are all ceramic. This seems fitting for an exhibition entitled “Agent of Change,” as ceramicists not only transform materials like artists working in other media, but they also work as chemists, exploring the effects of heat on different glazes and different types of clay. Lindheim worked with and developed friendships with artists such as Alexander Archipenko and Antonio Prieto, and viewers may recognize the influence of those artists on Lindheim’s ceramic work, but Lindheim was also innovative on her own, developing new techniques and new glazes, including the heavily textured white matte glaze found on Planter. As with any other aspect of her life, Lindheim became an artistic leader in the Bay Area and beyond, serving as chairperson and then president of the Association of San Francisco Potters; teaching at the California Labor School and the California School of Fine Arts; working on the model and layout for the 2nd Sausalito Art Festival, which broke attendance records that year; founding the Designer-Craftsmen of California; serving as 2nd Vice President and Program Chairperson of San Francisco Women Artists; and acting as juror for Marin Society of Artists and the Sausalito Art Festival, among many others. Lindheim was an artist who fought for progressive change within the art world, and who fought on behalf of artists, regardless of the medium. She was an artist and a person deserving of great celebration.

-Heather Murray, Curator

Dan Herrera’s Uncertain Freaks

Werner Heisenberg articulated the uncertainty principle in the 1920s: “The uncertainty principle says that we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other.” We can know where a particle is or where it’s going, but not both at the same time. This has to do in part with the effects of our attempts to measure the location or the speed of movement. To measure a particle we are forced to affect it, and even the slightest interference can cause the tiniest particle to behave differently. Although the implications of the uncertainty principle are profoundly widespread in ways I cannot explore, I am especially interested in the aspect of this principle of quantum mechanics as it relates to the effects of our attempts to measure. The uncertainty principle tells us that we are not objective observers and that our attempts to measure and describe affect and change the object of our study. We define as we measure, and our measuring tools transform that which we measure. So it is with our measurement of human beings, and this is at the heart of my interest in photographer Dan Herrera’s “Vaudeville” series.

“Vaudeville” refers to the type of variety show performed in the United States most popularly from the mid-1800s through about 1940, its demise often associated with the rise of cinema. Herrera’s photo series, however, focuses on a particular aspect of this type of entertainment: the freak. Robert Bogdan, Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and Sociology and Director of the Social Science Doctoral Program at Syracuse University, has written extensively on the social history of freak shows and, most recently, their relationship to photographic depictions of disability. Bogdan makes clear that “being a ‘freak,’ a ‘human oddity,’ or a ‘human curiosity’ is not a personal matter, a physical condition that some people have. ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking about and presenting people—a frame of mind and a set of practices.” In the case of vaudeville, these practices took the form of visual objects that, not unlike the practices of advertisers used to this day, exaggerated and misrepresented what was on display: “Using imagery and symbols managers and promoters knew the public would respond to, they created a public identity for the person that was being exhibited that would have the widest appeal, and thereby would collect the most dimes. To accomplish this they took citizens, some with abnormalities and others with none (except the desire to live the life of a trouper), and made freaks out of them.” This was often done under the guise of education or as a heavily distorted form of flattery, in which the person on display was to be admired for heroically overcoming adversity or for having some exceptional, often excessive, characteristic, such as strength. Keeping this in mind, then, Herrera’s work is less about the “freaks” on display, and more about their construction in advertisements, handbills, posters, and sometimes canvas paintings used to market the event and sell tickets. It is about the cultural production of so-called “freaks” as a way to circumscribe “normal” by calling attention to instances in which its limits have been crossed.

That Herrera’s work is less about the freaks and more about their construction is evidenced by the lengthy process that goes into making a single image. He starts with the construction of miniature dioramas made from found objects and customized ready-made materials. Measuring a foot tall or smaller, these dioramas take the form of a stage, a bedroom, or even an outdoor scene, and Herrera takes great pains to make sure they are carefully lit before photographing them, often installing a labyrinthine system of miniature wires into the dioramas. Next, he photographs live models with full-sized props to “populate” the dioramas in a composite print. The finished product is the result of multi-step process in which he takes the digitally photographed stage sets and live models and uses a gum bichromate process that dates back to the invention of photography. Each layer of color is applied separately and must be carefully aligned with the previous layer. The layers are exposed using a color-separated digital negative, and Herrera must use heavy watercolor paper that can withstand the extended soaking essential to the gum bichromate process. As Herrera explains on his website, to achieve the unique texture of the final image, “I selectively remove bits of emulsion and expressively gesture, revealing my hand. The intensely manipulated final print is both rich in tone and surface depth.” It is quite impossible to see one of Herrera’s “Vaudeville” photographs without recognizing traces of its maker. Furthermore, he demystifies the process for the viewer by including the dioramas as part of the exhibition of this series. Herrera’s work, then, is less about the freaks and more about their construction.

The construction of freaks is simultaneously about the construction and enforcement of norms, and the identification of freaks in contrast with and to define “normal” derives from a series of measurements. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson explains in the introduction to Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, freak shows assembled the general public in a “collective act of looking” at individuals whose physical features represented “hybridity, along with excess and absence, . . . the threatening organizational principles that constituted freakdom.” Thomson emphasizes the importance of visual culture in the identification of freaks in an environment in which the “normal” crowd gathers to measure themselves against the hybrid, the excessive, or the absent—all measurable attributes. The onlookers, united by their neutral, normal bodies, are defined as such by their ability to identify the Othered freaks as hybrids who are not exclusively human (see Herrera’s web-fingered man in The Wax Tickler or the objectified mantis in Adaptive Foraging), as indulging in excess (the strong man in Physically Cultured), or as lacking essential parts (the cyclops in Adaptive Foraging 2). The threat posed by freaks (that such abnormality is possible or contagious or will somehow infiltrate the “normal” population) is contained by the freak show and by the crowd’s higher population of “the self-governed, iterable subject of democracy—the American cultural self.” The concept of the freak, by simultaneously defining and reinforcing normativity, also defines our national identity and our values. Entering into a conversation about freaks means that Herrera’s work engages us, the viewers of his freaks and their construction, in a discussion about national identity and compels us to consider the politicized bodies defined in opposition to today’s “normal.” Whose bodies do we measure as abnormal in order to determine who occupies “normal”? Where do we see these bodies? Reality shows? YouTube? Beauty pageants? Perhaps I reveal much about myself through that list of possible locations in visual culture for defining freakery and and enforcing normativity, but Herrera’s work begs the question.

I would like to end, then, with Herrera’s Uncertainty Principle. Given Herrera’s interest in science fiction, the title likely refers to work by Dr. Who or is perhaps an obscure reference to the work of Arthur C. Clarke, but I am more interested in its relation to the idea of measurement and the impossibility of objective measurement. In the photograph, a woman wearing lingerie and heels stands in front of a well-lit mirror holding a goblet. She is a hybrid, her hair resembling the curling tentacles of some sort of sea creature. She seems to size herself up in the mirror, angling her head so as to see her face at what she might consider her best angle. She judges her reflection, perhaps in the process of getting ready for a stage performance. We are invited to judge her as well, as we are presented with her full back side and the reflection of much of the front of her body. In addition, because she vainly gazes into a mirror (a representation of femininity not new to art history and not uncontested in contemporary art), we are positioned as voyeurs of a creature who does not return our gaze, but is instead fixated on her own image. We measure and judge her as she measures and judges herself, none of us capable of achieving an objective understanding of what we see. We measure her against ourselves to make conclusions about how normal we are and how freakish or “exotically” attractive she is. We define her and ourselves through these measurements. Herrera’s work reminds us, then, that freakish behavior or abnormal appearance come not from nature, but from culture . . . or perhaps that the former is always already invented by the latter.