Bunnies, Music, and Paint: Max Neutra on His Journey and New Tongues
Back in January of last year, I walked into Crewest for their group show “Audio Canvas 3” and my eyes immediately fell on one explosively colorful wall that featured drooping boobs. Amidst the many breasts, a few small canvases depicted simple images like an ice cream cone, and a pair of lips, but the palette and chaotic drips of Max Neutra made those works memorable. That aesthetic translates into Neutra’s depiction of repetitive motifs like bunnies, boom boxes, and eyes. Neutra will showcase his talent at an upcoming solo show at C.A.V.E. Gallery January 12. I chatted over the phone with the artist about his work in “New Tongues,” the “Jack White” silk screen I recently bought, and his fruitful art career.
Tell me about “New Tongues.”
I’ve traveled a lot in the past couple years and I’ve noticed when traveling in these areas where people don’t speak English, you’re forced to communicate using other methods. Your body language, facial expressions and things like that and pointing at things close by and whatever you need to do to get the message across. I noticed after doing that a lot that there’s this heightened sense of awareness that happens when you’re in that kind of struggling to understand each other mode and I kinda found that even though there was a language barrier, I often felt like I was connecting more with these people than you would normally. Its people that you aren’t having a full conversation with but trying to figure something out like a menu or where something is and normally when both people speak English you ‘say hey where’s the bathroom?’ and they say ‘over there’ and that’s the end of it. You don’t even have to look at them. When there’s this thing where you have to figure them out… there’s a connection. I was marveling at how the lack of a common language was bringing people closer together.
I started thinking about the mode you get in when you’re trying to understand something and you open up your channels and perceptions to things more and try and take it all in. That’s what this show is about. It’s about that mode of trying to decipher a code or trying to understand something or someone… A while back I was studying Kanji ‘cause I liked the way it looked… I wanted to start incorporating it into work…. But it’s not about a specific message but about not knowing what it says – injecting that mystery and bringing that foreign element. Making it feel like it’s from some far off place and therefore it’s more valuable and more rare. I’ve done a lot of new stuff in this show I’ve never done before. I did a bronze bunny, my first bronze and I find that’s a way to create that new kind of heightened awareness just between you and the material.
Since you mentioned bunnies, I’m curious about why they are such a consistent image.
I occasionally do some live painting. I was painting live at a late night band thing at a club in Hollywood. I was up on stage and it was a crazy dance party going on. It was 2 a.m. and I thought ‘I’m tired, this thing is going until four so I could start something new or I could start wrapping it up.’ So I looked out at the audience and thought ‘look at all these people…’ I looked at them all dressed up in costumes and outfits – a lot of them are tripped out on drugs and they’re having a good time. Meanwhile the world is ending as we know it, the planet is dying and we’re just having a good time. I thought ‘humans are probably going to want to have a good time’ til the end.. we’re gonna dance our way right off the edge of the cliff. We kept procreating and we do what we wanna do. Because of procreation, I thought about rabbits. I thought ‘we’re a bunch of rabbits.’ We just keep making more.
So I did a piece, a canvas covered in rabbits and there was one that was multicolored standing out. This woman ended up buying it that night and commissioned two more for two of her friends so suddenly I’m painting a bunch of rabbits, right? Through those three paintings I discovered painting rabbits was actually a lot of fun – it was this new thing I hadn’t done before, a lot of curves and finding the right way to fit them together on the canvas where they seem randomly mixed but at the same time they work… it really became almost like a meditative study of the curve, finding the perfect curve of the shape of these rabbits… I still haven’t found the perfect curve. Part of the other fun thing is each one is unique and has a different personality. Every time you paint one it’s like meeting a new creature.
You also make music – do you think your two creative outlets inform each other?
Absolutely. I made music for about eight years before I started painting and it was the thing I really wanted to do… I made mostly electronic stuff, early dance music, quirky noise stuff like Kraftwerk and I was doing that for a long time. I ended up getting a job in audio video at Warner Music Group in Burbank which was a great job to have because it’s the music business so it’s casual. The job before that I was working as a audio video for Swank Audio Video which was hotel AV which meant they had doctors have seminars about bladder infections or whatever and someone set up the projector, ran the mic, and at that job I had to wear a suit – which is why I think I like to paint them a lot – and I just hated that job. It was service oriented… If someone came up and said ‘hey dye my poodle pink, ’ you had to say ‘yes, sir, right away!’ I hated that job so I was bummed about it and when I went to Warner Music Group I was able to just be Max… but I learned that because I was in charge of these conference rooms I was in a lot of meetings. I got to sit in on a gazillion meetings, planning, marketing, so I learned a lot about the business and it really turned me off.
Around that same time, I had an epiphany after installing a stereo at someone’s store in West Hollywood. I was grabbing a cappuccino next door and I was waiting and looking around. It’s the middle of the day on a weekday, there’s a bunch of young rich people enjoying their lives, having coffee. I was saying ‘look at all these yuppies what are they doing? What are they contributing?’ Then I thought ‘Oh, Max, that’s not nice… what makes you so special? What are you contributing?’ And that was the moment when I realized that I’m supposed to be an artist because I was asking myself ‘what is my most natural state? What would I be doing whether I’m getting paid to or not?’ And that’s to be creative… to make stuff.
How did you move from getting the desire to create to then becoming a well-known artist and doing commissions for big companies while selling art?
Because of my job [at Warner] which is take care of every single stereo or conference room in the building in Burbank, I was everywhere and knew everybody. At one point or another I was in everyone’s office. So I had access to everybody which was a lot of fun just being able to chat with everybody. That’s part of why I thought ‘this is going to be great. I can start showing my music around.’ I did try to show music to some people and I noticed the second I brought up I made music to anyone ,there was this wall would come up like ‘oh shit there’s thsi guy trying to get something out of me’ and as I grew up and got more mature about the whole thing, I understood their positions. What are they going to do? At that level, they’re working with like My Chemical Romance and Madonna – what are they gonna do for Max Neutra, the guy that makes weird electronic music? I stopped trying, I wasn’t that interest anymore but the funny thing is once I started painting and drawing and that started becoming a thing I was doing and people started noticing, they were totally down to help or support with that. I think it’s because it wasn’t as close to them as the music… some of my first big opportunities came from working there. Things like doing a video for Taking Back Sunday and paintings for Dead Weather.
That sounds awesome!! I’m a huge Jack White fan.
Warner has been putting crap out. Sorry, I’m a music snob. Every once in a while there’s something, once in a while they put out something good. By the time Dead Weather came out, I had greased my wheels. They knew I was capable so they said ‘yeah, go for it.’ I was able to do some Dead Weather portraits and do a video and get some dough. That was a big boost. It got me credibility. That was one of those moments. But really, you’re asking how you get from the beginner to professional and a lot of people ask me that… Every artist has his own tasks and set of circumstances and opportunities that open for him and I’ve had a string of weird things happen.
I got an email from someone saying ‘hey do you wanna come paint in India?’ And that’s all it said an d I said ‘yes of course, what’s the deal?’ And it ended up being a six week tour for Corona to raise market share for corona and they wanted a live painter… That’s when I quit my job at Warner. And that was another moment ‘Now I can say I worked with Dead Weather, toured across India.’ Each one of those things you build upon and prop you up more and more. It’s about being the nice guy to work with that’s fun and easy to work with and people will speak highly of you.
Can I get the scoop on my “Jack White” silkscreen I just purchased from C.A.V.E. Gallery?
The very first Jack White-type thing I did was of him and his sister – was that his sister? (Meg White). That was this video I did on YouTube. I was doing a lo of videos a while ago. I used to shoot them and then spend hours and hours editing them in my office at Warner when I didn’t have anything to do. I did a YouTube video live painting of the white stripes and it didn’t blow up or anything but it was kinda popular and people liked it. I ended up doing a video with Taking Back Sunday and and when The Dead Weather came around, I showed that video to the guy who was the liaison between the label and the band. I said ‘hey let me do something like this for Dead Weather so he runs it by Jack White and gets approval. I had a small budget and went and did the big 36 by 48 inch portraits of each band member, so there’s four videos.
And then after that, because they’re on the official Dead Weather channel got a bunch of views. I was getting a lot of emails of kids asking me for a print of the jack white portrait and I had to explain to them that technically the label owns the rights to the image… but for whatever reason they never made prints or put them on anything which is a shame. I think it could’ve made some dough… So I’m getting all these emails for people asking for prints. In order to skirt around the legalities I didn’t want to make a print of the actual painting I made for Warner Brothers. I made one more Jack White painting and made a print of that and made a video of that whole process which was a lot of fun.
CARTWHEEL is all about collecting. You’ve done everything from working with big companies to live painting. What are you hoping people take away from “New Tongues” or from buying your work?
When it comes to the idea of my work being hung in someone’s home, my attitude about selling work is usually – like if someone buys something I try to say ‘of course they bought it, ‘cause it’s awesome,’ not because I’m thinking I’m awesome but I’m trying to manifest success in my own brain. It’s like cheering myself on and fooling myself into believing it’s appropriate that people are buying my work.
I’m like most artists which means I’m my own worst critic and it’s rare that I do a painting and I go ‘that shit is awesome!’ Usually I think ‘that’s alright, I can do better.’ I can always do better… the thing I do enjoy about people buying my work is something I developed mostly during a lot of my live painting stuff… the whole live painting was a total fluke. When I started painting I didn’t think that it would be that big of a deal deal or a big thing for me… I had some friends in a band called Tweak Bird… I went and painted live at one of their shows at a little place called Cocaine in Little Tokyo, this weird little place I’ve never been to since. I did one painting per song, something like ink on paper. So I had like eight paintings by the end of it strewn all about and I was covered in black ink and it was wild. I sold almost all of them – I made more money than the band did that night. That’s when I realized ‘oh shit this is a lot of fun…’ I went and did art battles in Europe , this thing called ArtBattles in France and Spain. You’re up on stage and they’re playing music and you paint for an hour and the audience chooses a winner. You’re painting live, you’re on a soapbox, and you have the opportunity to put across a message. And I realized this is a valuable thing. I’m in this space and there’s hundreds or thousands of people around me and they’re all looking at what I’m gonna do. How often do you have that kind of attention? Could any of these other people be in a situation where they’ve got everyone paying attention to what there gonna say or do? I started thinking about how I should start thinking about what kinda messages I want to put across…. Do I want to get up and paint something cool or something that can change someone’s brain?
I think about it now in the terms of what messages am I putting out there? What sort of vibe am I peppering the world with? When I first started painting, I didn’t know what to paint about…It was more reactive outlet stuff. It was angst, emotional challenging of whatever I was feeling. Nervousness or angst or frustration… but I started thinking about how when I take some of that dark energy out of me and put it onto the canvas, I think that’s good for me, that’s a therapeutic thing for me but it’s almost like who wants to take a cancerous tumor I removed from myself and hang it from their wall? Surprisingly there ARE people that love that type of stuff though they’re kind of rare. But, you know, that’s what I started thinking about. What kind of messages do I want on these walls? Not that I need to paint absolutely positive messages… I like to keep it honest and real, from me and what I think about and am interested in but I also keep in mind that this is something – a big painting on the wall that changes the room It affects the space around it… There is something kind of satisfying about the idea – going back to the epiphany about ‘what are you contributing, Max? What are you offering the universe?’ And I’m not necessarily saving lives or building wells in villages in Africa or anything as cool as that but there is some sort of thing that’s somewhat satisfying knowing my vibe has been posted on someone wall and is kind of changing their vibe. I just hope I have some sort of positive influence, ultimately. Well, it doesn’t even need to be positive, just affecting. I just want to affect people and make some sort of difference and change something. whether its good or bad isn’t important as long as something happens.
Photos courtesy of the artistMax Neutra will be present at the “New Tongues” opening taking place on January 12 from 7 to 10 p.m
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