Studio visit: Jesus Max Ferrandez, Vanitas in a Time of Folly
“In Spain, the dead are more alive than in any other country in the world.” ~Federico Garcia Lorca
By Gary Brewer
To converse with history and use images from iconic paintings that set the stage for a contemporary expression of “Vanitas”, these and other earthly delights are some of the ingredients of the powerful paintings of Jesus Max. Jarring juxtapositions, spatial dislocation and complexity all rendered in a masterful hand add a surrealist quality to these intensely realized works. These are not ironic postmodernist paintings that thumb their nose at history – they are seriously considered arrangements of scenes and people from Max’s personal life, fused with images from painters whom he loves. It is using art history as a metaphoric element to speak about religion, history, human suffering and folly. These are paintings that make you feel and think within an open narrative that communicates specific meaning – a personal expression by the artist – but also open the doors of perception to parallel universes of meaning.
Max said of his work, “ I want to create paintings that are intense, that make you feel deeply and that have gravitas. I hate postmodernism and its cynical irony. When I use historic paintings in my work it is not to defile history but to use the expressive power inherent in the image and to discover something that I can use in my work. When I want to see something new in painting I do not look at contemporary art, I look back to the Renaissance and to other periods to find something that I have not seen before.”
There is a painting in his studio titled The Frontier, the landscape in the background is taken from a crucifixion scene by Nicolas Dipré, an early 16th Century Renaissance painter. Max has transformed the central figure of Christ on the cross into a Northwest Coast Indian totem pole. Mother Mary has been replaced with a meat grinder, a strange mechanical object painted yellow with the lower jaw and teeth from a skull on top, a graphic linear outline of ‘googly eyes’ floats in front of it. To the right is another Northwest Coast sculpture of a raven mask resting on top of the red fabric that clothed a weeping figure from the original painting; Max told me that this painting was about religion and history. These startling juxtapositions at first take, feels Magritte-like in the irrational relationship of the disparate histories and culture, but the title draws one into the story of European’s arrival in the New World and the tragedy that befell the native people and the role of religion in ideas of manifest destiny, etc. It is a powerful painting that conveys humor and pathos in equal measure.
Max is not interested in novelty and believes that the obsession with the creation of the ‘new’ in art has distracted artists from the core elements of image making and story telling. We are human; our lives are short and filled with powerful emotions; love, fear, longing, pain, beauty and suffering. The intensity of existence written in a language that speaks to the soul; that arrests the heart and mind and focuses one on these facts is central to Max’s paintings. “I use elements in my work that are humorous to poke fun at death. In Brueghel’s paintings of festivals we see people eating, drinking, dancing and laughing but death is always at hand, lurking somewhere in the background. Brueghel’s works are lovingly painted, they are expressions of the human condition painted with humor and joy, but always with gravitas. It is that mix of humor and intensity that I am after.”
Another painting, The Curator, speaks on a multitude of levels simultaneously. It is a depiction of a skull with a garland of artificial flowers adorning it. The skull rests on a pale blue laptop and there are headphones that one assumes a young person was listening to music on, they are surrounded with colorful toy medical instruments; a stethoscope, a device for reading one’s blood pressure, a bottle of pills; elements that suggest mortality. This blend of the macabre and colorful, are positioned at a steep angle of perspective in the mundane setting of an apartment kitchen. The white tile counter top articulating the receding plane, the accoutrements of existence; a stove, refrigerator, the cabinets beneath a sink – the existential needs of existence are rendered in a pedestrian setting. These add a deadpan impact to the composition. Floating on the left hand side of the still life is a pale pink and blue object. It is an element lifted from Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” combined with a ‘container of souls’ a fantastic object ‘d arte that was popular during the Renaissance. The title, The Curator, is a critique of the tastemakers whose choices of importance and content in the flavor of the month club are juxtaposed against the mortal coil in this light-hearted Vanitas. The overall effect is complex; the painting has a weightiness that makes it emotionally intense; the colorful toys are a foil against this emotional force; it is a tug of war between gravitas and humor rendered within the context of the everyday world we all know; the smudges on the refrigerator door a mark and measure of another day of life having passed.
Max was born in the city of Reinosa, Cantabria, Spain. He carries within him the rich history of European painting and especially the Spanish obsession with death and the darker elements of life. Dali is an important painter to Max, especially the early Surrealist period where the weight of his nightmare imagery conveyed the power and emotional intensity to which Max is drawn. He spoke about the genre of Vanitas and how important this period was in Spanish painting from the 17th Century. Max draws from the history of painting and from his personal life to compose these fractured surrealist images. They function as a narrative thread that weave the personal, political, historical with emotional realities that Max feels compelled to grapple with.
In many paintings there are strange objects depicted, they are fusions of humorous toys, googly eyes or fake-teeth combined with rarefied objets d’arte from the Renaissance and other periods. He may combine these with an imaginary object from Hieronymus Bosch, or a grotesque design motif from Italian wall decorations etc. These elements add a strange hybrid synthesis to his paintings; they also create a compelling spatial dislocation to his single point perspective. They exist in a different spatial plane and create a breach from the overall spatial continuity. It is another plastic force that fractures our everyday reality and opens conduits of content to dig deeper into our collective memory and understanding of our world and its machinations.
Jesus Max uses the startling power of realism and its strange effect on consciousness – to trust the eye’s interpretation of space, while simultaneously knowing it is a flat surface – to tell stories. From this initial act of magic he draws us into an ambiguous realm where signifiers can be read from a multitude of vantage points; the artist’s need to speak to history, of his personal life and of our mortality is one path. The spatial and conceptual labyrinth of byzantine complexity that we are guided through yields other personal interpretations that the viewer arrives at alone. This is a journey that we take, under a strange light, in whose shadows lurks the hourglass of time, each grain of sand is a moment filled with the joy of life and its brevity, with the weight of knowing that this too will pass.