The Crux: A Conversation with Max Razdow (Part I)

Max Razdow, Crystal 2, 2009, pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9″ x 7 inches.

Max Razdow, Crystal 2, 2009. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches.

Lynn Maliszewski: To catch everyone up, you were recently included in a group show at Freight + Volume called What’s the Story?, which considered how one might relay their own particular truth through images. The Nebula Series, a recently completed body of pen and ink drawings, was on display for the very first time. The drawings are demure yet acquire the volume of your most grandiose paintings. The series sprouted in 2008, which means you’ve been pregnant for nearly five years.

Max Razdow: I had a lot of breaks. I think every year [since 2008] I pretty much made a few. There were times when I’d make a set of ten or something like that and then I wouldn’t make them for six months, then I’d make a few more. Probably close to half of them came in the first two years, then I slowed down for a while. The last couple of years I started working on them pretty hard again.

LM: The unmistakeable Nebula is the focal point of each work. What was the process like in developing it as the subject? 

MR: Most of the time it was just a Xerox transfer [of a nebula]. The abstractive aspect of this initial phase really came from the process of doing the transfer. I used various images for each cycle and I suppose that the process of choosing images had some randomness built into it. Once I had the image, the Xerox transfer itself unlocked them and dislodged their iconic status. I purposely never really got this process down to any kind of science so the solvents I used were constantly sloshing the images around, marbleizing them, missing parts of them, turning some of it into a hazy cloud. After this I sprayed a thin wash of ink over it with a spray bottle, which helped the image fade more softly into the white part of the paper and expanded the composition on the page. I found this loosened image a lot easier and more gratifying to work with – I could climb around the abstraction in my drawing with more agency, keeping the totemic image in mind and at hand visually but not so close that it dominated the experience or the outcome. When it got to the point that I kind of knew what was going on, I would write a poem in it and that really solidified what it was about. Sometimes that was the end, then other times that drew me toward a little bit more illustration of that idea to kind of hammer it home.

LM: Did the writing portion evolve over the course of the series?

MR: It was always part of the process of that drawing session, which sometimes would be a few weeks but not usually more than that. I’d sit down and draw for a while, and after a few days when it was kind of coming together I would write the poem. I think it has to do with hip-hop and having been interested in free-styling when I was a kid. That process of generating some kind of dialogue in your head and letting that bleed out onto the page when it sounded like it made sense and it was crisp along with the image… sometimes it was more sloppy than that, though. I’d write a little bit and realize it was about something else three years later, then I’d have to make another banner. Some look really wonky in that way.

LM: One can trace your train of thought via each ribbon’s discreet sermon. They are halfway between proverb and tweet. It’s another portion of the puzzle to crack.

MR: It sort of doesn’t matter, in a way. That’s the way poetry is sort of, or at least the way that I approach it. It’s a set of symbols that you try to link elegantly but really it could be backward and it would still have the same general meaning.

LM: Do you see imagery in a similar way? I was thinking about a symbol, say, that you had on two works that were of a different size, or even a different color, and how striking a difference in tone might be. Do you think verbiage is not as wont to trigger such particular reactions?

MR: That’s a good question. For me, image making ends up being a lot more particular. I guess it might be the way I look at symbolic juxtaposition: if a hand is held above a flame, it holds a specific meaning and this totally changes if the flame is coming upward from the hand. There is a directionality in images for me that makes them grow as a kind of map. There is a specific geography of the picture plane which makes its meaning very literal. This is different than thinking of pictures as picture objects, where their primary geography is in relation to other picture objects (artworks), history, etc. I tend to see the picture plane of a drawing or painting as hermetic. I think poetry can be the same way. There’s no reason text can’t be just as specific.

Max Razdow, Nebula 3, 2008, pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9″ x 7 inches

Max Razdow, Nebula 3, 2008. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches

For me, the textual (at least at this point) tends to have a very simple relationship to my work where it is basically there to highlight the relationship of a few basic symbols and present them to the viewer. In this case, it doesn’t matter too terribly much which symbol you look at or read first. If there is some directional specificity in the poem, that’s great; it probably means that there is more going on there than I intended. Maybe it is even opening the image back up on its own and pushing it further, but I don’t approach the writing of it with a lot of attention to this. I write them very quickly, and as long as the basic relationships are cataloged, I’m happy; I trust them. It’s a much quicker, less responsible process than making the visual image, which is maybe why I relate it to free-styling in the way it feels. I trust it because the image has bred the basic constituents and I’m just restating them as a key through which the more subtle aspects of the work can be read.

LM: The text does indeed allow one to pull more from the image. If a preconceived notion existed upon viewing it, the text either shatters it or provides a distinct foundation. The text summons your research in exaltation, in transcendence. We’ve spoken before about your consideration of the Narcissus myth and its connection to divination.

MR: At one point I started thinking about solipsism a lot and was really interested in the idea of what it means to invest your own meaning into something, or divide yourself from the world and design your own fantasy about yourself and about your existence. How can you then prescribe that onto other people through art? How and why should you transmit those ideas? Does it make sense? It’s a very anti-pop mentality.

I started reading about narcissism and Narcissus in conjunction with the divination writing I was doing. LexisNexis happened upon some paper from some guy talking about how he thought the earliest, prehistorical aspect of Narcissus’ myth, where it came from actually, was the process of water scrying. There are all these symbols in the Narcissus myth that are really similar to this kind of prehistoric form of divination. Often a young boy would be used to go to the water and look in it, see symbols, and then transmit these ideas to people. It’s something that happened through the Middle Ages and probably still happens today. So that got me interested in that, in rearranging the Narcissus myth and thinking about narcissism as something that has this freeing potential or some sort of shamanic link.

Max Razdow, Eye 2, 2011. Pen, ink, Xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches.

Max Razdow, Eye 2, 2011. Pen, ink, Xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches.

LM: Narcissism insinuates entitlement, ego even, that is in distinct contrast to the water scrying tradition for me. With scrying, the boy is chosen as a facilitator for the community, serving to connect them with another realm. How do you feel about self-portraits? Do you think that they may indeed be the ultimate narcissism in that they are excessively self-reflective?

MR: The term narcissism is a problematic one, I think that’s why the whole history of the myth is so intriguing. I’m not sure if self-portraits are the best example of divination because they typically try to move toward a defining sense of the singular subject that doesn’t always leave as much room for the “other realm” to say its piece. Of course there are a lot of exceptions to this.

Self-portraits are most useful in terms of reading the intent of artists in the same way that reading about the life of an artist can. By getting a sense of the way an artist sees him or herself, you can get a huge window onto the way they intend or hope their works will be read. Again it’s a key to a puzzle. Ultimately, it’s really an intimately conversational kind of work. It’s interesting that recently there are entire bodies of artistic creation that consciously take the self as a starting point and try to weave an entire world around it in a very evocative way. I’m thinking of Cindy Sherman, but also recently Josh Smith or Josh Abelow. I think it can be very effective.

LM: Considering the Narcissus myth and data, I think there are a ton of parallels to draw. Subscribers to the internet can broadcast infinitely. Staring into a pool of our own making and our own image provides a projection, not necessarily truth. Black Lake’s installation at Freight + Volume, a world of strobe lights, silver shiny things and foil, really supported this point in the exhibition. It was confrontational and blatantly a space that solidified it’s own existence by making other options obsolete. It somehow became a norm that one could ingest in its continual doubling-over on itself. It reminds me of using the internet as a source in undergrad, where obviously only certain choice outlets could be used as authoritative opinions because there is so much junk out there.

MR: It’s a strange problem. Data is so malleable right now. Truth is almost meaningless because its so powerful. You see that in politics with Fox News, among other things; a very slick presentation can convince people of these ridiculous things that don’t really have much basis. I’ve heard that as a critique of fantasy, too. I read a really interesting article after that shooting in the movie theater playing Batman happened. This film critic was fearful about kids falling into this place where they really idolize things like the Joker in a way that has a problematic connotation. People can go down these dark paths by isolating themselves from morality or ethics, just chasing these weird doves into the wilderness.

LM: We also have empowered the idea of ‘our own path,’ which can be dangerous for those with excessive gall and a faulty moral compass.

MR: I think that something I’ve gotten more interested in lately is finding morality in fantasy. I am looking for a way to connect those interests which I think are so prevalent on so many levels of the world right now to something that has some kind of traditional ethic.

LM: But is it morality, as in right or wrong? Or do you mean more so in the sense of humanizing situations and people more completely?

Max Razdow, Face 2, 2010, pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches.

Max Razdow, Face 2, 2010. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper. 9 x 7 inches.

MR: I think it’s both! We all live basically similar lives as humans, have basic needs, and are interconnected in this way. The social and physical space we live in at times pulls us away from these things toward its own goals. Culture, society, and technology can all be amazingly useful and healthy things, and are completely indispensable to us at this point. They can also pull us in strange and unhealthy directions. I’ve tried to navigate toward something has more of a tether to ur-principles, archetypes, things that can tie to real world need rather than an ‘anything goes’ mentality.

EPIC, the video exhibition I curated, was to some extent about that: people that are gesticulating in these fantastic zones at the same time are pulled together in a weird way along these dramatic arcs that can happen in a movie or in a science fiction novel or religion. The fantastic, which bears both magical freedom and the memory of ancient truths, can allow us to discuss and ambulate in a space where we can have full bearing over what is meaningful. In an interconnected way, in a way that is also tied to the built-up knowledge of our past in myth and drama, we can make better decisions about our future direction through the fantastic than in the highly constrained spaces we actually live in. That’s not to say that real world issues can’t enter this space; they can and should. Somewhere in there, I hope, there is a kind of ethic, but the space itself is more about finding it than what it might be. 

LM: We’ve talked about how this connection to the fantastic has spurred from many sources: the subconscious, the devil, God, spiritual inclination, etc. The notable evolution of the Nebula from beginning to end makes me wonder if your connection to it has transformed at all over time. It leads as an ambiguous void and transitionss into a focal point that serves as an odd birthing vortex. Did you find yourself pulling from your own consciousness for this series or did it parallel divination more so?

MR: In the beginning it was as simple as, “something’s coming from the sky!” There wasn’t a lot of clarity about what it was going to do or what it was supposed to do or what it wanted to say. That wasn’t really what the series was about; it was about announcing the eminence of this transmission in the beginning. As that hit the ground and then started interacting with various aspects of what I felt was contemporary existence, it became more clear what its moral was and where it was trying to go and what it was trying to say.

LM: Did you envision it as such an extended series?

MR: I just wanted to make a few at first. It was a really off-hand project and then it just kept going and got more interesting the further I chased it.

LM: How did you know it was finished?

MR: That’s hard to say; there are a lot of them. I think a lot of it had to do with symmetry. I started seeing it as a clock dial with various phases and symmetrical relationships to each other across the dial that I wanted it to have. I did a few drawings for this, at one point. I started thinking of it in quasi- astrological terms, that there had to be balance and things had to cycle back to the beginning. I think that led it to its foreseeable end. I think they’re pretty much finished. I doubt I’m going to start any more.

LM: Finding the balance is key.

MR: But at the same time there’s a lot of plasticity within it. I think there are more drawings in it and some of those [included in the show] are not really part of its perfect form yet. I have a few that are not really done that I’ll probably finish at some point. I’m still figuring it out myself. I was hoping to put them in a room where they would go around the wall. I think it would make some of the relationships more clear. I get really interested in little things that happen when you put a little group of three of them together or a couple of them together. I think they do make their own relationships and make their own poetry.  

Max Razdow, Interlude 3 (Ruin > Crystal), 2012,  Pen, ink, gesso on paper. 22 x 15 inches.

Max Razdow, Interlude 3 (Ruin > Crystal), 2012. Pen, ink, gesso on paper. 22 x 15 inches.

On to Part II

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About Lynn Maliszewski, Contributor-at-Large

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She curated and composed work for ArtWrit, BOMB Magazine, HAHA Magazine, Hyperallergic, LatinLover, Modern Painters, No.3, Whitehot Magazine, and Whitewall. She is currently the Contributor-at-Large for ON-VERGE, an arts journalism blog sponsored by CUE Art Foundation, until 2013. She hosts her own blog, Contemporaneous Extension, as a compendium of aesthetic interests, archived exhibitions and artists, and uncensored inferences. She has contributed editorially to the College Art Association, the Bushwick Film Festival, Like the Spice Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art.
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One Response to The Crux: A Conversation with Max Razdow (Part I)

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