Modernism. Classicism. Mannerism. Abstract Expressionism. Minimalism. Maximalism. Less is More. Less is a Bore. So many categorizations; so many architects, visual artists, writers, musicians cross the lines, read or draw between the lines, and yet these movements—and the critics who define them—do have traction and purpose. The “-ism” of today is Maximalism, which was the subject of several exhibits in 2019, and which was the genesis of a very spirited Zoom discussion undertaken by the Mid-Coast Salon one November evening.
After a group review of several artists’ works, David Estey, artist, Salon founder, and leader, opened the discussion with a definition of Maximalism (a reaction against Minimalism, an aesthetic of excess) and a very exuberant and chaotic image by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari of a domestic scene, and an abstract, layered image. David posited that Maximalism as evidenced today seems a very appropriate sign of our times: loud, colorful, complex, attention-grabbing, and all-inclusive. He then turned it over to the group which included (in addition to David and the author): architect Michael Corden, and artists Kris Engman, Bob Richardson, Jack Silverio, Carol Sloane, and Lesia Sochor.
The Salon investigated questions such as: How does one position an architect or artist within movements—and specifically Maximalism? Do these designations have different meanings across different art forms? Across different cultures and eras? How blurred are the lines? And does it matter? Is it useful for the artist—or only for the critic, the historian, and the viewer? And, of course, what is Maximalism and how broad or narrow a definition does one apply to it? Having artists answer these questions, sometimes in relation to their own work, offers a different perspective from that of the critic.
In 1966, the architect Robert Venturi reacted to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous quote “less is more” with his infamous quip “less is a bore.” Venturi created patterns, applied ornamentation, made historic references, and celebrated Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture along with the “messy vitality” of the Las Vegas Strip, which is the decided opposite of Minimalism. Was his approach Maximalist? Postmodern? Eclectic? Mannerist? Perhaps the answer is all of the above, but it was definitely an architecture with attitude—and a funky elegance. We all agree (I think) that there is a certain interior design aesthetic of excess that is Maximalist, but what about Hieronymus Bosch? Henri Matisse? Édouard Vuillard? Jackson Pollock? Mark Bradford? Kehinde Wiley? What about the inherent multi-disciplinary complexity of opera: Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle or John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles? So many questions, so many places to take the discourse . . .
How did this discussion unfold? The first argument of the Salon was introduced by Kris Engman, who spoke against the idea of any “-ism,” finding them unhelpful and even detrimental as they categorize artists in artificial groupings—and thereby suggesting that the evening’s conversation might be short. It was not to be, however, as Jack Silvero spoke on behalf of taxonomies, and the need to describe and contrast works in a language that can assist not only the critic, but also the intellectually curious or the engaged observer.
Irony set in, as the paintings that Kris had shown that evening (see photo at top) carry some of the characteristics of Maximalism: patterning, color, layering, texture, complex spatial relationships. The result, however, bears little resemblance to our typical understanding of Maximalism (think of those opulent interiors or Faith Ringgold’s colorful patterning). This work was contrasted with the painting presented by Jack Silvero (see photo), which is a literal collage of texture and color in the minimalist tradition, but with a richness that belies the initial simplicity.
If you accept David Estey’s initial comment about Maximalism as an appropriate sign of our times, it suggests an excess, a loss of a factual base line, a trompe l’oeil applied to the veneer of our society. For some artists, this could be an imprimatur to be celebrated, for others, one to reject. The work presented by Lesia Sochor (see photo, and Maine Arts Journal’s fall 2020 issue), is a collaged work of rent fabric and elements inspired by current events. As she described in her article, “the ever growing quilt beckons us to repair COVID, immigration, connections, love, justice, climate change, and—on a personal note—my husband’s hip (which has just been repaired).” This work raises the question of intellectual complexity amid visual richness—and how that fits into the discussion. Is that a component of Maximalism? Or is Maximalism primarily a graphic ploy?
In one hour, more questions were raised than answered, but the Salon conversation opened up a debate that is more broad reaching than a discussion of Maximalism. It became a discussion about how one looks at any artist’s work, how the artist sees it, and the complexity that can go into even the most apparently simple (“my kid could have done that”) work. Through that complexity, having to do with technique, color, process (intellectual and physical), the artist’s hand and eye may create a work that is seemingly minimalist or maximalist, or something in between. For this group of artists, the consensus was that the work stands on its own, outside of classification. For the critic, the work may or may not fit neatly into a taxonomy, but for the layman words are the best tool we have to share ruminations on or appreciations of an artist’s work. Human desire to understand and perhaps control may lead to categorization, which is a product of intellectual investigation, but it is not a product of the creative process.
Image at top: Kerstin Engman, Summer Grasses September, oil on linen on panel, 36 x 49 in., 2020.