The Creatives Series: Painting with Max Schulze
Max Schulze, a 25-year old Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU) alumnus, is a painter and writer who works in the hospitality industry. The Dutch artist discusses his work with columnist Flo McQuibban as part of the Amsterdam Creatives series, published every Friday.
By FLO MCQUIBBAN
Nine o’clock, and the rain is pouring down in Amsterdam. I’m standing in front of an off-white door that is tucked away in an empty street in Transvaalbuurt. Peering up at me from the bottom of a narrow staircase is a dark silhouette; I’m greeted by a tall, curly-haired man with kind eyes.
I carelessly dunk my rain-drenched rucksack on top of a nearby chair, which seems a safe bet. As we sit in this spacious yet modest, cold studio, I’m offered a glass of water or a tea. I enquire about his drink of choice. “I like champagne. That is totally my favorite drink,” he sighs as if realising it for the first time. I laugh when he says he swears he doesn’t drink it often, and sometimes even pairs it with “trashy frozen pizza.” Later on, Schulze will tell me he likes contrast in his art, and I’m thinking he likes it with his dinner too.
Though he surely has many fond memories of growing up in Almere, Schulze felt a pull towards a more creative location. “I moved away from where I was born because I felt like all the people there were the same, and not really aspiring to be different, and I obviously was,” he smiles shyly. “I just felt like there wasn’t enough space for art in general.” Schulze has a special interest in modern art, which he felt was not present in his hometown.
Schulze has always been drawn to art. “My mother tells me I was an easy child,” he says. “Those big blocks of paper sheets, and a pencil, were enough to make me happy.” Later on, he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Utrecht School of the Arts, where he won the HKU Thesis Prize for his essay on tragic poets Sylvia Plath and Ingrid Jonker.
“Sometimes I have inward moments where I contemplate and write, and other times, I have these, I want to say aggressive moments where I am inclined to paint or create.”
The artist works as a waiter, though he would like to dedicate more time to his art. “On a personal level, I do talk about [my work] with my colleagues, and sometimes customers as well,” Schulze says, though this isn’t always enough for him to stay inspired once he gets home.
“Sometimes I have inward moments where I contemplate and write, and other times, I have these I want to say aggressive moments where I am inclined to paint or create. Whenever I feel a spark of a certain kind of energy, it will happen,” he says, running his fingers through his hair.
I ask him about his work process and how he would label himself. “I’m both a painter and a writer, though I don’t really label myself. Actually, I’m in a bit of a crisis – and I also just don’t label anything… I guess you could say my paintings are part of one big organic work.”
“I also have this really big archive of images that I found on the internet. I printed them all, and I keep them in different places as something I can always use. These are images of all kinds of things, but mostly old photos of people, and sculptures, artefacts.”
“I also find that subjects are often competing for respect… I want to prove that some subjects are important”
Schulze sees a deeper meaning behind these pictures. “Most people see these sculptures as [passively] beautiful, but they have so much meaning behind them… If the order is changed, or the way in which they are shown, even the places in which they are [exhibited] – it tells a different story. So most of my works are like riddles.” I inquire on the nature of the riddles, and if he’s solved them. “Well, they are riddles that I’m working on,” he laughs. “I usually know what they mean, but there is a lot to discover when you’re making something. When people are curious, I’m sometimes willing to tell, but it shouldn’t be too easy.”
Schulze’s paintings portray mythological figures such as Aphrodite. The painter believes the way the figures are represented can affect the meaningful message they send. “I also find that subjects are often competing for respect,” he says. To challenge this hierarchy, Schulze plays around with the sizes, heights, and positions of the subjects he depicts. For example, in one of Schulze’s paintings, Julius Caesar and Aphrodite face each other. “I want to prove that some subjects are important, and I guess in this case, Aphrodite represents the tragic woman,” Schulze acknowledges, harking back to his ode to Plath and Jonker from his thesis.
I look around at the paintings. Most of the subjects painted seem to be isolated; above me to the left, almost hidden from sight, is a man with a blue face entitled Fou, and in front of me hangs a green ear entitled Testament. To my right, on the wall, is a black silhouette background with the outline of a vase in the forefront, Grief. Against Schulze’s ladder rests a painting of an ancient roman column, Summary of a column, and at the top of the ladder sits a painting of a dead, upside-down pigeon, Urban Tragedy.
“I have forbidden myself to touch my work after it’s finished,” he says. For Schulze, canvases are too expensive for artists to throw away. “Sometimes I reuse. But I also don’t think anything is ever really finished. For example, this work,” he says as he points to the painting on the wall to my right. “I added the outline of the vase […] about a month later.” When it comes to choosing a title, Schulze informs me that it’s never a literal title, and that it works the same way for his poetry. “It’s usually from a poem I’ve read, or a part of a sentence.”
There seems to be a bit of a conscious color scheme going on, some greyscale and a lot of “contrasts between light and dark,” as Schulze puts it. I’m curious as to the influences behind it all, and first on my list of guesses is René Magritte. “I do really like Magritte. I really like Rauschenberg too. And for modern painters, I went to visit Justin Mortimer’s show last summer in Berlin,” Schulze shares. He was surprised to find that Mortimer’s show was centred around flowers, not people. However, modern art doesn’t always appeal to him. “I guess, I don’t like the ‘sleek abstract,’ I don’t like things that are overly modern, look-at-me-being-modern.”
In terms of poetry, Schulze’s ode to Plath and Jonker was not a random pick. The writers that feature in his thesis are known for their tragic poetry and turbulent personal lives. “I like when there is a certain value to someone’s work, it makes it real in a way, to talk about [your own] tragedy. It’s very honest.” Plath often included her clinical depression in her writing, and later on died of carbon monoxide poisoning by putting her head in a gas oven.
“One of the biggest moments was the black hole I experienced after graduating […] I felt worthless.”
“You do need struggle [to be an artist], but it’s often romanticized as if it were essential for success, whereas I think it can be really paralyzing.” Schulze has also found himself in difficult situations but doesn’t think this compromised his work. “One of the biggest moments was the black hole I experienced after graduating; I didn’t have a job, I lost my house, moved back in with my parents, didn’t get any exhibitions. I felt worthless. People don’t talk about it enough. We all go through it. Most of us hide it. That makes it seem like it doesn’t exist. And my work is quite existential. I think of these big questions, like the end…”
At one point, Schulze worked in the TorenKamer at VondelCS for a week. “I basically locked myself in a tower… so that I could force myself to get over the fact that I don’t really like being alone,” he professes. “It was an experiment, but it worked. Yeah, now I’m less afraid.” Schulze admits that he has many moments where he feels euphoric, and that it’s up to himself to believe in his work, not for other people to do so. If he’s really proud of something, he’ll usually have it up on his Instagram page in no time, he says.
Though Schulze’s writing, which is for him “really personal, sensitive, vulnerable, existential and confessional in nature,” is yet to be published, he plans on one day releasing a poetry collection. Additionally, he has also made videos for exhibitions that he describes as a “flow of warped, nocturnal images with an eerie soundscape” which are accompanied by a voiceover in Dutch of some of his own poems. As for me, I’m hoping to find out some more about the pigeon painting next time we meet for tea – or Champagne.
The paintings “Summary of a Column” and “Grief” were incorrect. Edited on March 15, at 7:46pm
- Columnist (Winter 2019)