The Crux: Conversation with Max Razdow (Part II)

Part I of this conversation can be found here.

Max Razdow is a practicing artist based in NYC.

Max Razdow, Face 9,  2011. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper,9 x 7 inches,

Max Razdow, Face 9, 2011. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper,9 x 7 inches

LM: The symbols you work through function in a similar way, often recurring in a number of drawings in the series with slightly varied connotations. Are there any symbols you feel particularly strongly about?

MR: There are some weird little sub-plots, some of which I really like and some of which really became a much bigger deal outside of the series than they were in the series. The one that sort of ended up being the most buoyant was the hand, the symbol of the hand. There’s a ton of them in that series. I think it probably goes a lot further back than the Nebula series, though it became really clear to me during that time and has continued since. The hands in my work operate similarly to how hand gestures work in some early Christian art. I’m saying this as a total amateur observer of early Christian art, but it always seemed to me that in a portrait of a saint, the hand gesture helped identify the saint and indicated exactly what the image said about that saint’s life and its relationship to us or the world. I think I use a similar logic, though the gestures become even more important because there is no real backstory to my characters, no accepted history. A Nebula, for instance, can direct itself toward the Earth in many ways and the particularity of its essence on Earth is indicated often by what its hands are doing. One that comes to mind is from the “Mist” cycle, where one hand is holding a string and the other holds a shard of glass. The text says something like “cleaving and weaving.” He is basically a cloud of interstellar smoke, but his hands dictate that he has a specific purpose. The hand is the leading edge of identity and agency in the image. Among other things, I think this has something to do with my interest in experience as identity.

Max Razdow, Mist 5, 2008. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper, 9 x 7 inches.

Max Razdow, Mist 5, 2008. Pen, ink, xerox transfer on paper, 9 x 7 inches.

LM: I read recently that Zoe Leonard pursued writing for a while as her own art form, practiced in private and kept for herself for the most part. It functions on the plane of personal fulfillment but naturally stretches her creative inclinations. Is there a part of your practice you consider solely yours, whether it be a sketchbook of doodles you have to work through ideas or pushing beyond your standard pen and ink?

MR: It’s funny, at this point I really don’t have that. For a long time, that sort of private working was all I did. From the time I was 16 to about 28, I was basically a sketchbook artist. I would keep a very personal sketchbook with me all the time, filling about two per year with pen drawings. I have them all in milk crates at my parents’ house. This was my art practice, and it was really a very personal thing; it was diaristic, fantasy based stuff though not exactly private. I showed the drawings to people any chance I got! I even had a website for them for a while, but still didn’t think about it as producing Art with a capital A. I learned a lot from doing this – about drawing but also about what imagery meant to me. At the same time, I was trying to learn to paint and was making various things that were more about public discourse. That was by far the smaller part of my practice until I went to grad school, where I very consciously decided to stop doing that kind of earlier work. Right now the closest thing I have to that are small caches of creative writing, free-form poems, ideas for fictional stories, and recollections of dreams which lurk in desk drawers as well as Google Documents files. I’m not sure how they relate to my art practice, though. While the ideas I generate there sometimes leak into my artwork, this seems to me more about pressing myself forward as a writer and getting ideas out to be rehashed later. At some point, maybe I will make the same switch that I did with my artwork and start to think of my fictional writing as purposefully public. Right now I feel like I’m just trying things out in that space, or saving the ideas for another time.

LM: This links back to divination, and understanding how art might provide an insight into pure symbols of our time. I’m thinking less about advertisement, more about contemporary perspective. Drawing, however, can be both busywork for a stagnant brain on the telephone or a preliminary to a master work. Why have you chosen drawing as your primary mode?

MR: I feel drawing is the most potent medium in terms of discovery for me, and that’s something I chase a lot in my work. That’s where I find out what I want to explore. When I’m making a piece in another medium it’s usually an idea that I feel strongly about and want to restate in a different way. In terms of divination, it’s as simple as that. I think there’s magic in that process for everybody, but how do we know where our ideas come from? That’s really basically what it is, learning something from the process of messing around and seeing what happens.

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

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

LM: That ability to have singular mental focus yet enter upon the trance of a wandering line definitely has it’s advantages.

MR: Yeah totally. That was also a real childhood thing for me. A big part of growing up and early adulthood was making drawings. It was a big part of my web of self-discovery.  It’s been diaristic and quasi-shamanic for me before it was art practice.

LM: In considering spirituality, I have to ask about the opposite side of the fantastic belief coin: science fiction.

MR: Science fiction has always been a big part of my interest. My dad was at one time a physicist and was always reading me science fiction when I was a kid or passing me science fiction books as I got older. It really became part of the way I understand the world and play with the world, from making Lego spaceships to reading Lord of the Rings when I was 13. I think that that’s something a lot of people are really enmeshed with right now in a way that’s more prevalent than it was in the past. It seems much more ingrained in people’s consciousness.

LM: The range of enormous hypothetical situations presented in science fiction that, at present, feel relatable is astounding. It has evolved into a crystal ball for predicting the decline of human decency.

MR: It’s a great testing ground for problems that may come up.

LM: Summoning contemporary reality may thwart a small percentage of science fiction’s otherworldliness at this point. Outer space is less of a desirable environment, other dimensions are even more unwelcoming. Do you think this darkened tone accompanies your drawings as well?

MR: I don’t see it as dark, but I think it’s because I’m really comfortable with some of these really dark symbols. Some of these drawings aren’t at all dark things, but I understand that a lot of other people really see them that way. I think they can be funny too, though. They use humor sometimes to circumvent their own horribleness or frightfulness.

LM: I found myself giggling continually at Interlude 7 (Face > Eye), which is so comically tragic. Are the larger works in the series, referred to as Nebula Series Interludes, meant to be bookends for each series or pauses between breaths?

Max Razdow, Interlude 7 (Face > Eye), 2012. Pen, ink, gesso on paper, 22 x 15 inches,

Max Razdow, Interlude 7 (Face > Eye), 2012. Pen, ink, gesso on paper, 22 x 15 inches,

MR: They exist between two series in that hypothetical circle. They’re pauses but also reinforce the ways that the symbols overlap each other.

LM: There are an incredible amount of moving parts in this series, but this multi-faceted nature of working is nothing new for you. I wanted to hear a bit more about your writing in the grander scheme of your practice. The Nebula Series was my first interaction with your words and I was pleasantly surprised.

MR: I’ve got a lot of different strategies or ways of dealing with writing in the work. I don’t really feel like I’ve perfected it yet. Whenever I make something I always have some sense of a verbal way of poetically expressing it or what’s going on in a scene. I always try to find a way to let that text exist somewhere but it’s not always in the drawing itself, it’s not always visible. Sometimes it’s in a separate piece or on the back of a drawing. For these drawings [Future Myths of the Surface series] I made an illuminated manuscript that has all the accompanying text in these poetic verses separate from the drawings themselves. Then I made that into a sound play with Kari [Adelaide] and my friend Dave Matorin. I think a lot of these ideas are really hard to transmit successfully unless you just say what they’re about. That’s kind of my hope for that project, that it becomes some kind of verbal bank. The drawings can be discussed within the terms of the symbols that have arisen in the way that I understand them.

LM: It feels less confrontational than your standard text art. Playing with text has become such a play on commercial advertising and subliminal messages in the contemporary sphere. It’s quite the juxtaposition that the drawings are ripe with symbols to be interpreted in any number of ways yet the writing serves to underscore exactly what you mean. It feels cheeky in its aversion to irony and mystery, all things considered. The text, however, presents challenges of its own.

MR: It’s a tricky thing because what you just said about text being prescriptive is problematic. When people approach a work of art, I think they can get sucked into the text sometimes and held back because of it. They can’t enter it and they can’t make their own associations so it’s tricky. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to find the right way to do it, but it’s a worthwhile thing to chase.

Max Razdow, Eye 6, 2011. Pen, ink, Xerox transfer on paper, 9 x 7 inches

Max Razdow, Eye 6, 2011. Pen, ink, Xerox transfer on paper, 9 x 7 inches

LM: That being said, your enthusiasm for assorted incarnations of language is telling of your sacrifice to your idea.

MR: Well I had made all these drawings, I knew they were about something, and I kind of knew what that was but it was really hard for me to access. I made a video of all the drawings and I took screen shots so I could make these collages, then I made poems that kind of went around the bottom. It was really just a process-oriented thing, and at the end of the day I was like, Whoa what is this thing? It reminded me of an illuminated manuscript in the way the images and the words mingled. I’m not sure how much conceptual intent there was behind it but it just felt like the right thing to call it. I definitely like going back to the Medieval sense of text. I think that that was a time when the process of writing was spiritualized in a way that I appreciate.

LM: I totally agree. Embellishments and the clergymen enrolled to produce them are fascinating. It put text in a cage but also exalted it.

MR: The collages are some of my favorite symbols from the drawing series. I took bits and pieces of different drawings and re-associated them, some of them were mixed up. It was a pretty sloppy process but I think it gave me the most interesting poems. It felt more fun, more open-ended and more worthwhile to just be a bit looser about it.

LM: Where does color play into your practice? It regularly offsets the drama of your compositions while neutralizing the gravitas of the gray scale.

MR: I think it does both things when I use it. I’ve gotten pretty into just making coloristic space.

LM: What do you mean by ‘coloristic space?’

MR: Warmer colors in the front and cooler colors in the back to create a kind of spatial sense. Sometimes I use color if I’m in the middle of a drawing and I feel like I need to link things together.

LM: Are there any artists you’ve been inspired by recently?

MR: The people that are most inspiring to me are friends at the moment. I’m feeling a lot of attachment to people’s work that I’ve been working alongside for a while. That’s mostly artists but some musicians and some writers. The things that really influenced me came early: William Blake in college; Surrealists when I was a kid; engravings when I was in grad school.

LM: That is kind of how it goes, isn’t it?

MRThere’s a certain point…When I first moved to New York and was checking out contemporary art, I was so excited about Dana Schutz when I first got to know her. I was so excited by Jules de Balincourt. And I still love their work, but that’s stopped happening as frequently to me. Now I walk around Chelsea and I like stuff but it doesn’t often stick in my mind, really. But then I go to my friend’s studio and we have a great conversation and that sticks.

LM: To be able to see something evolve, and know that you have a grasp on change, is revitalizing.   I’ve been thinking about Lynne Tillman a bunch recently, her interest in narrative that crosses over into art and cultural criticism. There’s a power in crafting your own narrative around something that is completely personal. She acknowledged a value in participating, in looking at the world and thinking critically rather than lauding blindly or shitting on one’s parade for sport.

MR: That seems like a much more potent way to think about criticism, rather than the kind of isometric positive versus negative review. Blog posts can be so vacuous.

LM: I despise poorly written trend pieces and ‘Overheard In’ spotlights. Who the fuck cares? Appealing to the 20-minute-lunch-break crowd is beneficial for hits.

MR: It’s hard to say what those things contribute. It seems like it can be done both ways, though. Somebody can still contribute something even if they’re subscribing to the Twitteritis short verse. It can be hard to take seriously sometimes.

LM: Is there anything you’re mulling over in terms of themes?

MR: It’s kind of a weird time. I haven’t really made new work in a while, I’ve been tying together old projects and getting ready to show and all that. In terms of The Nebula Series I’ve been thinking about turning them into astrological cards, so that’ll maybe be a project for the future. There’s a lot of investigating I need to do to get it right so it’s not something I can rush. I’m excited to get back in the studio with an open mind. I feel like we’re probably similar in that we both have a lot of unfinished things we want to do. But you know, stuff gets done. I think it’s good to have unfinished things because at some point, some opportunity will be there to sync up with your loose thoughts. Something falling apart means that something else has the opportunity to occur.

Max Razdow, Crystal 4, 2012. Pen, ink, on paper, 9 x 7 inches.

Max Razdow, Crystal 4, 2012. Pen, ink, on paper, 9 x 7 inches.

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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: Conversation with Max Razdow (Part II)

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