Artist Interview: Max Guy

Today we’re joined by the Chicago-based artist Max Guy, who holds a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, as well as an MFA from Northwestern University. For The Way the Mystic Sees, Max contributed Untitled (Red Mask), Untitled (Yellow Mask), and Untitled (Blue Mask), all 2018. Without further adieu, let’s take it away.

Weinberg Newton Gallery: An extension of your previous work, you contributed a series of steel masks to The Way the Mystic Sees. How do you posit these—as disguises, or something more ceremonial?

Max Guy: This trio was described by a friend as a “punctuation” to my ongoing series of cut-out masks, which is currently a collection of around 100 or so iterations of masks that I started in 2017. Those were prototypes for a larger mask, cut from extruded Styrofoam, that I’d used in a performance. At that time I was interested in performing with the mask, so the material was more ergonomic, and the method of cutting out prototypes from paper was also a quick way to iterate. The decision to cut these from steel, and paint them in primary colors was also an ergonomic decision in a way. Steel is rigid so it can communicate a kind of flatness, and is magnetic, so it’s easy to hang. Primary colors came more intuitively as well in this case. 

I don’t see them being used as a disguise at the moment, but I also wouldn’t completely abandon the idea. The three masks exhibited are more ornamental. If you can call the examination of the masks a ceremony, then they might be ceremonial masks. I’ve visited a lot of homes and tourist destinations where masks are treated as souvenirs, and divorced from any ceremony (other than their exchange). I grew up in New York City, in a home decorated with masks that were purchased as souvenirs and alienated from the traditions in Africa and the Caribbean that birthed them. Maybe for some people they hold a symbolic value as some sort of link to their past, but my fascination with masks came from the horror in gazing at these stoic, disembodied faces on the walls of my home. I saw them in my therapist’s office growing up and took comfort in the fact that if I couldn’t look him in the eye, I could look at them. For the moment, I’m happy to look as these masks formally, and to think about a face’s distinct social implications. 

WNG: Cut forms feature heavily in your artistic practice. Is this a way to represent malleability of the art object, of that which it conceals, or which it may even project?

MG: I cut silhouetted forms, and my impulse to cut is a separate one from my use of outline or silhouette. Cutting-out a is a reductive action and I don’t know if looking at a silhouette is always reductive. As you said, we project/add quite a lot on/to a silhouette. I like the different things you can do with a cutout: you can circumscribe, circumnavigate, omit, divide, trace. Blades, lasers, water-jets, these are an entirely different set of technologies that are used to cut things from whatever happens with the use of silhouettes, outlines, stencils, etc. 

For me, silhouettes imply shadows, concealment, projection, as you said. They evoke different cognitive and psychological principles. My favorite silhouettes are Kara Walker’s, because with them she’s able to make the viewer assume races, sexualities, racial hierarchies, inferred acts of violence, and all with one color. 

Silhouettes and concealment are used in motion capture studies for CGI and surveillance–I don’t think that cutouts really have anything to do with this. I can build out from a silhouette, its flatness leaves a lot to be demanded, whole other dimensions. But when you cut something it’s already a three-dimensional material. 

WNG: You frequently use color in your work, both semiotically as a way to impact the viewer. How does the use of, in this case primary colors, tie in with the notion of surveillance? As a method of distraction, or something much more engrossing?

MG: I don’t really have a color theory, and as I said before, the use of primary colors was more functional in this case. Red, blue and yellow are fundamentally unique from one another and my hope in usuing them was to distinguish each face, despite similarities in outline and cut forms. In this way, I was interested in creating characters out of each face. I like work that can use color evocatively in this way.  

WNG: You’ve previously mentioned an interest in pareidolia, and how it’s used to build facial detection software. As our society becomes (amazingly even more) image-based, do you believe that the opposite can be taught—the face as an unrecognizable form as we become more detached from those around us? 

MG: Facial recognition is a social thing–on a personal note I don’t know if I would want to learn how to un-recognize a face. The BBC series The Human Face, is a really fun show with John Cleese that goes into all of the reason humans need to be able to recognize a face and its myriad expressions. I read somewhere that 1 in 50 people live with Prosopagnosia, a disorder that leaves people unable to recognize faces. The painter Chuck Close has it, and probably also had a hand in how image-based our society now is. 

One of the things I think about the most when making these masks is how in a number of years, I read more about artificial intelligence and machine learning than the mapping of the human mind, the kind of studies of empathy, and the functions of the brain. Even if this was dilettantish reading, the leap (and clear path) from cognitive science to machine learning has me very uneasy. Facial recognition technology–as an offshoot of artificial intelligence–is, to quote a friend, “a scientifically unsound cover story for expanding the surveillance state.” Out of paranoia I fear that even technologies used to un-recognize, to ignore, certain faces might be used in some sinister way. I hope that we’re not learning unlearning facial recognition!