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.