Max Key's paintings are fueled by his subversive impulses.
Key, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, writes that the work on display at the Fahrenheit Gallery forced him to reacquaint himself with art history. "I have been studying dated interior design for its excessive patterns, forced colors, false allure, and plastic tackiness," he notes on his Web site. "The definition of gaudy reads as 'reserved for the tasteless.' Taste and beauty are subjective. It is here where I have found a profound influence for my current paintings ... I look back at past trends, investigate what colors represent different eras of design and fashion, and research ornamentation found in other periods — all for the sake of making large and loud paintings."
They may be large, but they aren't loud for loud's sake. They are pointed and well-defined examinations of the corporeal nature and excesses of ornamentation and what ornamentation telegraphs about our bodies and our culture.
Like most of his paintings, "Tsunamerican" combines several styles, eras and artistic and cultural sources: A tree-of-life image emerges from stylized waves inspired by Japanese woodblocks. Using his typical color palette of acidic and unexpected colors, Key produces a pastiche that surprises yet seems familiar.
That duality partly defines and refines his work. It is familiar yet not; attractive yet repulsive. In Key's paintings, things leak, drool, drip and seep fluids. White drips in "Tsunamerican" can seem like tears in one place and like nauseous goo in another. Key's ability to combine such unnerving dissimilarities in a single painting elevates his work above a simple rereading of ornamentation.
The notion of abjection is central to penetrating Key's dense images. A linguistic concept from theoretician Julia Kristeva — and examined by many contemporary artists — abjection is that which we abhor, that which transgresses our ideas of cleanliness and order, especially when it comes to our bodies. In "Blood Oranges and Apple Cores," Key paints a central tree decked with sections of blood oranges and apple cores. Each fruit, or what remains of it, oozes a caramel-colored fluid. That the fruits are bitten into and otherwise injured gives them a human-body sensibility. They feel wounded, bloody — abject.
Key's works also share an obsessive, magical quality. Recurring fruits, birds, vines, flowers and objects suggest the tang of mysticism. Think of ancient Islamic religious imagery, in which repeated patterns and motifs, vegetal and geometric, suggested the infinite nature of God.
Repulsion and desire coil through Key's work, creating a site of subversive ornamentation and artifice where the familiar and the unfamiliar coexist. Like our bodies, the paintings are vehicles of binaries and opposites that, when skillfully manipulated, function brilliantly.