Love is an enigma. A definition that reforms, rearranges, and replaces what we once thought to be true. In June of 2020 contemporary artist Max-o-matic (aka Máximo Tuja) collaborated with New Collection and began the quest to define love. Like love, his process reveals an evolution of ideas that attempted to capture its unbounded nature. New Collection interviewed Max-o-matic to learn more about his ideation methods and inspiration behind The Infinite Love, a series of 33 collages.
Amber Cobb: The Infinite Love is a multi-faceted project which emerged during a conversation between yourself, Nicholas Pardon, and Mario Zoots. At New Collection, we approach projects through the lens of collaboration, which in this instance, began with the question ‘What is love’? Max, as an artist, designer, and curator, you often cross paths, connect, and work with others. In what ways was this collaboration similar and different from others?
Max-o-matic: This collaboration was special in many ways. It was similar to my previous work because I was working in many ways that I was already working on other projects regarding the materials and my approach to art. But it was also different because new elements were added into the mix that made things more interesting, enriching, and challenging.
The first new element was a brief. Even though I worked in creative projects for more than 20 years on design and illustration commissions, when it came to making my art, most of the time the main drive was addressing issues I needed to express at that certain point of my life. So having an art project with such a specific brief was something that I hadn’t done before and definitely changed how I was used to working on my art practice.
It was also different in terms of sharing the process with other people while doing the project. Nicholas and Mario asked me to see the development of the project, so we had an open line of communication where I shared with them the most significant moments and milestones. That, seeing it in retrospective, was of great help because it helped me to have a calmer and less anxious (which I am) approach to my work. Before sending something I needed to stop and think: is this good enough? Does this really make sense? As well as other basic but important questions that I don’t need to address when working on my own because it’s just myself, and there’s no dialogue with outside parties.
So, yes, it was similar and different at the same time. Similar enough to feel that I was working in an area that I felt had some control; but with new elements that made me go out of my comfort zone and try new ways to make things work.
Was this your first time working with ‘Love’ as a concept?
Yes, it was my first approach to love in my art practice. I never used to work on such specific issues. Most of the time, the topics that my work addresses are more diffused and less tangible. I never made a project about “violence” or “injustice” or things that can be spotted at first sight. I’m very interested in things such as perception and the creation of meaning. Also, I’m very interested in the role of chance in our lives.
What is love? When I ask this question out loud, lyrics come to mind, rather than imagery. This daunting subject matter is often embraced by musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, and poets. Yet visual artists, particularly contemporary artists, tend to avoid ‘love' or at least tiptoe around the topic. In your opinion, why are writers and musicians attracted to ‘love’, and why do visual artists shy away?
My first reaction was the same. The first thing I wrote in my notebook as soon as I started working was the lyrics to a Magnetic Fields song (The book of Love). But when the project started developing I moved away from all music references.
But thinking about your question, I’m not sure that visual artists shy away from love. I guess we are more exposed to pop culture than we are to art, so we are surrounded by lyrics, films, books, and other cultural artifacts that talk about love, meanwhile, If we want to find “love” in art, we need to go and look for it.
Also, pop culture communicates in a more direct and obvious way: “She Loves You”, “All my loving”, “Love me do”… and I can go on eternally. Art has a more subtle and less obvious way of communicating its ideas, but there are plenty of artworks and artists who have addressed the theme of love in their work. Marina Abramovic made amazing performances where love was a central part. Frida Kahlo’s work is marked by love... I guess that’s just a matter of being more aware and we’ll see love everywhere :)
Our experiences of love are vast and full of a range of varying emotions. As you began to unpack your response to ‘What is love’ what emotions and memories come to mind?
When I think of love, the first thing that comes to my mind is my son. I can’t think of a clearer and stronger manifestation of love in my life. But also there are more simple ways of finding love. People. Experiences. Moments. Love leaves a small imprint on your brain that stays with you forever. I feel love is this great word that involves the most important things in your life, and also captures small but utterly beautiful memories that you want to keep close to you no matter what.
I imagine the quest to define love presented some challenges. I immediately thought of a series of lithographs and typeface prints by artist Louis Bourgeois titled What Is The Shape of This Problem? As you embarked on this quest, what questions arose and what dilemmas were presented? How did you face these challenges during the ideation process?
Yes! ‘What Is The Shape of This Problem’ is a great way to describe how I felt before starting. Love can be so many things and also it can mean nothing. So as soon as I started working, I tried to have a “scientific” approach to the idea of Love. What is love? Why do we love? How do we love? And I started interrogating the concept of love from many angles. Of course I didn’t find any answer to all of these big questions but it helped me to start thinking and classifying ideas. I knew that I wanted a subtle and not direct approach to love, but I wasn’t sure how to achieve that.
During the initial part of the process, I managed to focus on some basic aspects. I knew I wanted to make a personal statement about what love is. Still I wasn’t interested in having myself or my personal relationships as a central part of the series. I needed this project to be about my ideas about love and not about what or who I love. And this was something that I had to be aware of during the process to avoid making it too self-referential.
After thinking, sketching and writing ideas for some time, I finally realized that I needed to find a way where love could be felt but couldn’t be directly seen. That was one of the ideas that guided me along the way. I wanted love to be both present and intangible. Love as a ghost. Love as a possibility and not as a given fact. I wanted a tangential approach to love that would make the viewers interact in a personal way with the series. I wanted to put the viewer somehow in the center to be able to hide myself because, in the end, what’s more important: What I think about love? Or what each viewer can think about what love is?
Speaking of process, the catalog you designed, “The (note) book on love” is quite revealing and features sketches, hand written notes, as well as the final 33 works. Being an artist myself I was drawn to this component to the project. The insight you shared regarding the conceptual and aesthetic development is compelling. Additionally, I applaud you for being open and vulnerable. How does vulnerability inform your studio practice? Does it alter or influence the work in specific ways?
The catalog was revealing for myself too. I’m not used to keeping such a specific track of a project’s process. And this time was key in many ways since it helped me structure the project in a solid way, and at the same time, it faced me with my own doubts, questions and fears – that luckily I was able to beat!
When I finished the series and recapped the project’s journey in the catalog , I had a new insight on my own way of working and thinking that I hadn’t had before. I tend to think that I’m impulsive and that my work is based more on intuition than on rationalization , but this notebook proved me wrong in this sense since the conceptual side of the project was as strong as the visual one.
Regarding vulnerability, to be honest, vulnerability has shaped me as an artist and as a person. All my weaknesses and shortcomings are essential for me to understand what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. My art practice is the best I can do with my own tools, and I learned to be ok with that. It took me a while, but for some time, I feel I’m ok with myself and I’m not afraid of being seen as how I really am. So being openly vulnerable is something that I haven’t even stopped to think about until you asked me this question. More than vulnerability, my limitations as much as my abilities have the most influence on my work.
During the initial ideation stage, you referenced three artists: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Agnes Martin, and John Cage. Caravaggio’s career flourished during the late 16th and early 17th. Even today, his realistic and dramatic paintings capture an audience; students around the world study his work to understand the technique known as chiaroscuro. Agnes Martin, an influential modern and contemporary painter whose work falls between abstract expression and minimalism while John Cage, a groundbreaking composer challenged and blurred the definitions between art, music, and performance. Bringing these three artists from very different backgrounds and across time together is similar to composing a collage. What connections did you see between them, and how did this unfold in the process and work?
Yes, they are a collage of references indeed. The connections can be seen once the project is finished. When I included those references in my notebook they were just things that I came across randomly and caught my attention, so I wrote them down.
I love Caravaggio’s work and I got a huge book of his complete paintings just a day before I started working on this project. I wanted to find a relationship between Caravaggio and love no matter what. I thought about the mystery of love, about the dark nature of love, and about passion. But after some time, I realized that my ideas couldn’t connect with those images naturally . So I left Caravaggio for another time. But the line in my notebook about The Mystery of Love kept coming back to me and helped to focus on the idea of how love appears in our lives. How do we fall in love with someone? How do we feel that love unites us to a person or a moment? That became the mystery I wanted to unravel, and that was the legacy of my obsession with Caravaggio in this project.
Agnes Martin arrived later, in a moment where I had more doubts and concerns than clarity in my mind. I felt lost and decided to leave the project to sleep for some days. While working on a commercial assignment, I was listening to a podcast, and the host read a long quote by Anges Martin saying that it’s easy to paint something that symbolizes an idea, but it wasn’t as simple to communicate that idea without showing something that represented it (meaning that’s easy to show love by showing two lovers kissing, to put a simple example; but it was harder to show love in a more abstract way). The idea of showing love without showing the lovers was something that I had from the beginning but I kind of forgot about it and had lost its initial strength. But after listening to Agnes’ quote and story I knew I had to go back to where the project had started.
Finally, John Cage came in when I read an essay about his “Chance music”. For Cage, chance was a way of letting the universe decide in the process of creating some of his musical pieces. He designed the framework, but not the actual music.
I had come across this process many times before when reading about the Oulipo literary group or some of the Situationist cultural guerrilla actions. Even Dada gave great importance to structures leaving the outcome to be a product of its interaction with chance. But when I read about Cage and his “Chance music” was the final moment when everything clicked.
I needed to find a way to let chance and randomness be a central part of the project. I needed to create a framework that gave the ultimate meaning to the whole series.
The infinite Love series consists of 33 collages: three sets with 11 works defined by color and subject.", yet there are repeating shapes that create cohesion and visual unity. Can you discuss these choices?
What I designed within this series is a “machine” that creates infinite love stories. The three sets are functional to how this system works, where one of the main features of this series is the combination between elements. The pink and blue series are people; the purple series are physical places or sites . So the mixing of two elements of the pink and blue series with a purple one creates a triad, which is the minimum unit of this series. Each triad represents a love story.
Who are these people? Where are they? What are they there? Why are they together? What have they got in common? What has attracted them? Why the different colors? What do these shapes mean? Why are these 3 colleges together? Why not others? All these questions (and many more that each person might have) and their answers create a story that lives in the viewer’s mind. There are thousands of possible combinations to create thousands of triads with these 33 collages. And each triad viewed by different people will create new stories. The possibility of creating stories is endless and the possibility of creating love, infinite.
As you reflect on this series and this project, what elements provoke new ideas, questions, and thoughts?
What I thought more about after finishing is how much a work process can influence the outcome. And if forcing different ways of approaching work can alter my identity as an artist. And, after thinking about it for some time, I feel that the answer to this is that my identity as an artist is something that’s not unalterable, but is in constant movement and evolution. So change is part of my identity and these shifts in the process are just a natural way of keeping on learning and expanding my boundaries as an artist.