Wednesday, January 21, 2009

LA City Beat reviews Max Neutra at Goods Gallery

Earlier this month I got a call from Ron Garmon at LA City Beat. He wanted to write an article on me, so I invited to view my latest show, a double shot of art with Michael Pukac at the Goods Gallery in Long Beach. He came, he saw, he believed. Here's some pics from the show and the article he wrote. To see the original article, click HERE. Thanks Ron!


Don’t worry, Max Neutra’s with the band

By Ron Garmon

Despite millions pumped into develop-ment and a string of half-empty condos dotting the grimy streets near the water, Long Beach Boulevard on this first Saturday night of 2009 is decidedly tomblike. Acres of Books, for decades a hive of early evening activity, shut its doors for good in October, forced out of business by a city now content to let the 1930s-deco barn stand empty until it’s demolished. Much of the rest is generic mallspace sporting the same tight-guarded, user-unfriendly chain-stores you find everywhere else, only here plopped into an already depressed landscape.

As if to mock official measures to make downtown Long Beach safe from literacy (there are talks underway about closing the city’s main library), the local art-proletariat looks to have discovered the place in a big way. Phantom Galleries, a movement dedicated to turning the county’s ever-increasing number of empty shop windows into temporary museums, has discovered the friendly old brick retail spaces, and light glows from studios scattered along the numbered side streets. Next to the shuttered bookshop is Goods Gallery: three metal shipping containers butting together to form a U-shape, its blank interior dotted with canvases. Within the crotch of the U, an R&B band loads out, and slender, sharp-featured Max Neutra paces inside the adjoining containers, talking of personal demons through a cheerful giggle.

“There’s definitely a lot of angst in this stuff,” says Max, gesturing at blank utilitarian walls festooned with his spiky caricatures – harsh and hilarious studies of men with TV screens for heads, glossolalic robots, human faces contorted in all manner of shock and horror, and an upright fish dressed in a business suit and breathing bubbles of worry. That one, he says, is called Drowning in Your Responsibilities.

“I decided to become an artist by epiphany, the only one I’ve ever had,” he continues. “I was sitting in a coffee shop after a gig installing a stereo at some shop in NoHo and I was looking around at everybody, feeling bitter against everyone there – ‘Look at these people! What are they contributing?’ Then I thought, ‘What am I contributing?’ Then, being an artist came to me, as the biggest contribution I feel like I can make in my surroundings.”

That was 2006. But long before that, before Max heard his own voice from this burning bush, he was a kid living outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, a kid whose great-grandfather is the celebrated modernist architect Richard Neutra (whose one-story Neutra Office Building on Glendale Boulevard is in the National Registry of Historic Places). Out there in the desert, he fell under the wanton influence of R. Crumb via dad’s collection of Zap Comix. He moved to L.A. as a young adult, got into sound recording and design, working as an A/V tech at Warner Bros. while composing electronic music. Since the epiphanic moment in a coffee shop in 2006, Max has become a regular on the local art scene, with showings/performances at the Hammer, the Found Gallery, the Mountain Bar and the Paul Gleason Theatre. His next gig is part of a group exhibit in the Loft at Liz’s on La Brea Avenue, February 9-15.

He cites Ralph Steadman and Jackson Pollock as influences, but the wiggy aesthetic animating his portraits of proud Indian chiefs, cracked robots and walleyed, multi-mouthed lumpen-bourgeoisie derives from a tension between animal dignity and human folly.

The result looks like one half Lucian Freud and 50 percent Mad magazine circa 1973, a preposterous, unsettling muster of faces and attitudes. As sold-out and world-battered as Neutra’s humans often are – and despite his frantic lines and crabbed, neurotic framing – his images of animals retain dignity and poise for all. “When it comes to animals,” admits Max, “I focus more on the beauty than on the grotesque. Man grosses me out more than a giraffe does. They’re innocent. Man has a choice, and the thing I struggle the most with is humanity.”

Tonight, however, Max is again taking his struggles public for another evening of “live painting” – nothing more than laying on color while live music hammers in the background and interested laity gather to dance and gape. “The first time I did this was at the Cocaine [a venerable Little Tokyo hole], with a band called Tweak Bird back in 2007,” Max remembers.

One half of a double show, sharing the space with Michael Pukac’s dainty, whimsical female nudes, Neutra wades into his performance like any giddy frontman, laying a preliminary splatter of black as members of the Mighty Mojo Prophets crank out sturdy 1950s blues riffs. Together, they pull in faces off the street, most of them stretching in kindly grins as Max begins heaping eyeballs, flannel mouths and bristly hairs on yet another luckless head. The artist had made a handsome boast earlier that he could wrap up one painting per song, but he takes his time over this particular monstrosity, limning every wart and blemish with care.

Walking the event’s perimeter is gallery manager Evan Kelly, optimistic despite every sign of strapped economic circumstance around us. “We have showings every Saturday and live painting definitely draws a crowd. They get a chance to see how art is made, and these containers are kind of a natural gallery space. In an age of sustainability and mobility, they’re perfect.” Open since October, the gallery is free, and the three containers that comprise it are donated by the Port of Long Beach. For any who take this no-budget aesthetic as a sign of bad times, Kelly has a friendly rebuke. The art biz “isn’t doing as badly as people imagine” in this downturn. “It isn’t like we’re selling product, as in ‘Hey, buy my crap!’ It’s a free show, but we’re selling art, something people are going to be interested in no matter what happens.”
The band careens into T-Bone Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday” as Max busies himself with placement of a third shrieking maw on a skull already overburdened with deformities. The crowd within the gallery grows, as amplified echoes bounce off distant walls, a reminder in the middle of a howling commercial wilderness that life is stubbornly going on somewhere. The musicians, cynical-looking old pros, are plainly delighted to let their elderly music be used as part of a new neighborhood aesthetic of art for loud’s sake.

Published: 01/08/2009

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