Maximilian Toth: A Contemporary Mythology
The rattle of trolley wheels, like a drowning cacophony of insects on a summer’s night, grind on asphalt at unprecedented speed. The coloured glow of faces that won’t forget their youth. Roman candles crackle and hiss, lighting our eyes sour yellow. Wolves in the face of danger. The dry smell of gunpowder sears our nostrils and fuels our lungs and ignites the primitive. Our hands grasp tight. Vibrations numb our bodies and our hearts climb to our throats.
Metal clashes with metal and we are catapulted through the air. Heads smack. Bodies collide. Bony joints grate the ground. Flares are thrown from our grip and we greet the blackness.
Cheers erupt from spectators now suddenly lit. Dumpsters, gutters, brick wall. Guys in rapture. Girls in singlets.
Are you fucking kidding me? That was awesome.
We gather the fireworks and inspect our wounds. Whose is worse? Freshly torn jeans publicise freshly torn skin. Red jello peppered with asphalt. One twisted finger. But we know the worst will announce itself in the morning.
Let’s do it again.
Walking into an exhibition of Maximilian Toth’s large scale paintings is exhilarating, to say the least. His narrative-saturated paintings of the uncontained energy of youth-at-the-tipping-point-of-adulthood are a call-to-arms to the kid in your own heart. The one you pushed aside to get a job but still rears its tousled head after too many whiskeys. His figures in their most dramatic instant scramble over fences, smash your furniture, tip cows, jump through bonfires, scull beer-bongs and battle one another with roman candles in shopping trolley chariots. A fuck-yeah attitude that is so huge his figures literally walk off the canvases and fill the gallery walls, ceilings also. There is no escape. His characters even moon you before you enter the gallery, they make-out near a doorway and aim potato guns right between your eyes. Scrawled graffiti spiral between walls and canvas. They own this joint and you are on their turf.
In his explosive exhibitions, Max depicts the state of unapologetic play within which we determine our own rites of passage. We structure games and happenings, stumble upon daily challenges, then channel our innate tribalism to prove ourselves to ourselves and to each other. It is these significant moments of transition played out amongst friends that Max immortalizes in his paintings.
And when your heart has slowed a little and the sweat from your palms has dried, the deceptive ease with which Max portrays his figures pulls focus. His chalky lines are sketchy like our youths, often thrown up against the midnight of a pitch black canvas. Is it night time or is the detail just trivia? His figures take centre stage - eyes wincing, postures determined, glimpses of flesh - but always showing an overwhelming sense of camaraderie. Enough is revealed for us to etch our own personal histories into the narrative. And that’s just it; he gleans stories shared by his friends and divines from his own impressively enviable, and at times unbelievable, life. There’s an instant identification, perhaps not with the exact storyline, but in that kid within you that commemorates the carefree.
Max’s outlines create a visual transparency that prompts the temporal feeling of teen-hood but also the hazy recollection of memories. Sporadic patches of translucent color relieve the monochromatic scenes, with Max remarking, "I see the points of emphasis like in a dream, where you wake up and you remember the story and you remember that the shoes were red and that's about it. I am not interested in recreating the entire world perfectly..."
It is often said that artists work in hope of finding themselves. Not Max. The psyches of his figures are inseparable from the psyche of the artist. He lives the attitude of an urban Huck Finn and, like the Mark Twain protagonist, Max exudes a contagious sense of freedom. An all-American larger-than-life guy with shirt-sleeves rolled up; ready not just to throw himself into life’s experiences but to instigate the adventures. His embrace of the present moment, endless sense of play and occasional Southern twang help complete the semblance.
His visual snap-shots are not romanticized or saccharine; they tap into the core of our human condition. They allow us to transport ourselves into that adolescent collective memory of pushing boundaries and kicking open doors. Our adventures provide a framework through which to jump through the fires of our own rites of passage. They are moments of personal revolution that realize milestones and create memories that form our own important mythologies.
The confluence of classical mythology with urban mythology in Max’s work is striking. In Clamming (2011), a zealous group of guys vie for the affections of the central elevated girl, akin to Penelope’s suitors in Homer’s The Odyssey. Except this scene plays out in a moonlit skinny dipping foray – the ultimate liberation of Summer Youth.
In Kit, the Wolf and the Rat (2011), an ordinary teen girl in t-shirt and jeans triumphs in plunging a splintered branch into the mouth of an attacking wolf, and although this is a portrayal of a remarkably true story of girl protecting pet rat, the composition is not unfamiliar. It is of conquest and victory; one that can be seen in monuments, civil war paintings and photographs such as Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The girl’s posture is fierce and victorious as her gaze sears down into the defeated wolf’s eyes. The only colour we see in this monochromatic scene, are the flashes of the wolf’s red blood wetting the fur around its mouth; a startling trickle of reality into this seemingly unreal narrative. To tip his hat to the literary forefathers of fairytale and myth, Max paints the flat silhouette of thistle and vine encroaching its way into the artwork over a picket gate. This Kara Walker-esque growth further frames the vanquishing stance of the girl. Together, the threatening image of a wolf and the wilderness’ sinister presence that was indoctrinated into us as kids, is immediately recognizable. Max uses this symbolism to make us realize our lives are as wonderfully strange as fiction and that as we choose to live them, we are scribing our own narratives. By painting these stories, Max heightens these lived experiences and catapults them to mythic status.
Like a Caravaggio painting, Max creates a fullness of composition distilled to an exact moment. That exact moment holds tension and suspends time. Enough is played out for the scenario to be apparent but, what happens next to his won’t-be-tamed boys and girls is left to our imaginations. How will this narrative conclude? Will the gamble pay off? As a viewer, we examine our own reactions to his themes. Am I shocked, fearful or thrilled? Should I laugh? Am I secretly celebrating inside? Is that twitching inside me a ‘Peter Pan’ yearning? While the values of his figures are demonstrated on canvas, our own immediate responses are telling truths. Like a good fiction novel, we find ourselves revealed through the shadowy divergence between the protagonists and antagonists. We are stripped back to question our thought processes, ideologies, and analyse our feelings. The ego-centrism of youth aside, Max’s paintings are about being human.
Contemporary Western society lacks the stringent stages of initiation which prevailed in tribal societies. Hyper-masculinity must self-administer protocol and develop a way to social survival. And central to this is a loss of innocence - sexually, socially, psychologically. A sometimes spontaneous and sometimes pre-determined framework propels us until we emerge bruised and gasping on the other side. But we emerge, brush ourselves off and run the gauntlet again and again.
A system of play and dangerous props set the scene. Enter: cars, demolition derby, Roman candles, fire, beer, bricks, spray cans and ice sabres. And like two warriors about to fight, adornments are eschewed, chests are bared. But the enactment of ritual more resembles play - a peer group education. It tests and proves us. Walking barefoot across hot coals becomes jumping through bon fires (Pirouette, 2014) and a transformative Peruvian iowaska journey becomes a forced delivery of beer-bongs (Beer Bong Belly Slap, 2014). Roman chariots are replaced with abandoned shopping trolleys in Duel Part One (2011) and Duel Part Two (2011) and swords are replaced by icicles in White Wash (2012). They are re-enacted battle and war scenes. They are contemporary sacral moments. War Party, the title of his 2012 solo exhibition at Fredrick and Freiser, says it all.
When Francis Bacon was asked about the prevalence of Christ-like figures and symbolism in his own paintings, he responded, “I think that this may be because we live in a period where we’re lacking in a contemporary mythology”. Perhaps Bacon is referring to an overarching societal type of mythology but what Max draws attention to, while preserving them in paint, are the personal and collective mythologies we self-generate while shaking hands with our mortality.
In a literal disruption of dominant Western mythology, his work Nativity (2011) depicts teens subverting a nativity scene by replacing a baby Jesus in the cradle with a passed-out guy. It is in this work that Max acts as an agitator to a prescribed mythology - religion. He paints a scene of raucous kids actively challenging society’s code. A demonstration of how we prefer to create our own moments that collectively weave our peer culture, no matter how offensive.
Max has occasionally abandoned the bold canvases and the chalky lines and opted for the more lyrical textures of watercolours. In 2011, he painted a beautiful watercolour series documenting the various species of clams, drawing us back into reality – a complimentary series to his major work, Clamming (2011). The muted tones, the fine details and the grace of the strokes create a visual pause. A chance for us to let the adrenaline levels stabilize. And then, as an ironical and humorous twist, two years later, Max painted a similar series: purple and pink blob-like shapes centred on the paper with titles such as Grandma’s Tongue, The Bat Wing and Chicken Heart (2012) which on closer inspection reveal themselves as testes. Wrinkles, hairs, purple discoloration. Simultaneously alluring and revolting. A joke at our expense - this artist is always present.
But it’s not all about machismo for Max. There is poetry in his paintings. Whether it is because they are steeped in nostalgia, stir mixed emotions or celebrate American youth culture, above all they proclaim the human spirit and in doing so, communicate universally.
As Max is an undergraduate in literature, it could be said that this is his way of pencilling our biographies. Scenes snatched from the artist’s and his friends’ lives; each painting adds a chapter to this graphic biography. They are stories celebrating youth in all its abandon, portraying the beauty in destruction. These years are perhaps the most imaginative and poetically written chapters of our lives. So do not flick past these pages too fast or be quick to dismiss them in our apparent fleshy comfort and wisdom of adulthood. These experiences, blow by blow, scene by scene, have sketched our own identities. Like a faded Polaroid, Max’s paintings memorialize these moments that propel us to mythic status amongst our friends. They are salty years, dense with loss and failure, grit and glory, hilarity, knowledge and wild with experience... and ultimately, we find truth through experience.