On View3A Gallery
December 15, 2019 – February 2, 2020
Max Schumann utilizes accrued palimpsests of pop culture as a basic support in his paintings in order to both qualify and clarify his politics and aesthetics. We all walk around with such enculturated schema in our heads, driven there by media repetition and familiarity’s contempt for contemplative disassociation and the potential free agency it might allow. From the specific hue of Facebook blue to the trademark orange roof of the (practically defunct) Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain, these pop cultural signifiers make up a fugitive yet persistent forest of signs in which no one can ever really tell if there were ever any trees to begin with. The residual memory of such pop symbolism can haunt our waking hours as if the uninvited daydreams of an interloping ghost of the promise of (ever-deferred) consumer fulfillment. Schumann’s particular tack seems to be to rely upon the accumulated associative meaning shared in his readymade supports, a visual commons of sorts, to serve as a substrate for a pointed critique of the cultural clichés they rely upon.
Walking into the diminutive space of 3A Gallery, just off of East 6th Street, I was initially taken by a large grid formation of National Geographic covers torn from their volumes and overpainted with acrylic and house paint. The signature deep yellow of the covers’ borders stands out first, after which a repetitive painted motif, on each, of an expressionist wheat field is situated within those borders, overcast with a cerulean blue sky voluble with muscular cumulus clouds. Van Gogh’s infamous last painting, of the wheat field in which he was to take his own life, immediately comes to mind, yet the artist has mentioned that the landscape’s source was derived from a Banana Republic advertisement. Hovering above each landscape is the National Geographic banner, yet below each is inscribed the names of countries that the United States have invaded or militarily intervened over the past 100 years or so. One repurposed cover is underwritten with “Iran 1953” which is when the CIA aided a coup which ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh which installed the more tractable Shah of Iran. Another cover indicates “Grenada 1983,” the year it was invaded by US troops, while yet another points to “Vietnam 1960-1975”: the significant dates of that American “police action.” Sometimes the painted logo of Banana Republic is also included in these compositions and sometimes not, it’s not exactly clear why or why not. What is very clear however is that Schumann is intentionally layering these familiar pop associations, basically extracting the inherent biases contained within: National Geographic (orientalism, panoptic tourism), Banana Republic (patronizing regard for the colonized, exploitation, and destabilization of sovereign nations). The provisional nature of the torn cover supports also add a dimension of material contingency that reinforces a free floating title (or entitlement) looking for an aggressively appropriated cultural narrative to parachute into.
In another series, in acrylic paint on very small fragments of cardboard, the artist’s subjects include painterly depictions of drones, Boeing 1 and 2 (2000), logos associated with computer manufacture, Intel (2002), and the military, US Air Force (2002). Such subjects are of course ancillary to the intent of the National Geographic series and almost seem, because of their small size, that they might be used as playing pieces on the larger world map grid of the torn magazine paintings. The way they are painted, in a murky and hurried way, relays a sense of the artist making a sketch on the spot, as a war correspondent might. Schumann’s touch carries with it not a refined taste for painterly delectation as much as it does the viscosity of paint as symbolic of a destabilized consciousness. It’s more trauma painting than anything else, and therefore supremely suited to the artist’s focus on fraught political histories.
Two other groupings of marginally larger works are entitled “Tonight” and “Where You Live” (both series date to 2009). Painted on synthetic fabric with acrylic, they share the artist’s expressionist brushstroke but with a bit more fidelity to photographic realism. Think the vibrant brushwork of Malcolm Morley if he had had Leon Kossoff as a mentor. Both of these series seem derived from TV news, specifically their weather report segments of the NY Tri-state area. A suited male weatherman gesticulates in his weatherman choreography hovering before a satellite map of “home.” The American consumer’s sofa-eye view of the firmament reads as parochial and sheltered. When you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows you’re probably missing the actual shitshow of imperialist storms being rained down upon significant portions of the wider world in your name. In these series, like the previously mentioned, Schumann hollows out what has become so familiarly comfortable to fill it with a scathing critique of the material, and moral, cost of that comfort. In this work the evil of banality is made to take a turn for the better.