i met carey maxon in a magical way. back in november i attended the eab fair (editions/artist's books fair). carey and her colleague lured me into their print studio's booth and she was immediately interested in what i've been working on. we exchanged info and carey later emailed me saying: "what i like about people like you is that you help make art visible in the world - in unexpected places - and those are great places for art to be!" i was totally speechless, honored and immediately knew this was someone i wanted to work with.
carey is a well-established artist. her work is in the permanent collection of the whitney, the moma and the brooklyn museum. and yet she's super approachable, down to earth and one of the funniest/quirkiest people i've ever met. carey also lives in greenpoint and has an amazing apartment that doubles as her art studio; it's full of her own dots plus artwork from her friends and many acquaintances. carey is actually moving to italy soon since she recently received a plot of land there (more on that in her interview below). we've talked about doing a few projects before she heads out and i hope they come to fruition!
cultureisland: tell us more about you.
carey maxon: i grew up in the bay area. my mom was a teacher all her life and was very interested in childhood development. she put me on the floor with paints when i was less than a year old. i was really into it from the get go. apparently, my other favorite activity was digging in the dirt outside.
i went to a great elementary school. when we studied the gold rush, the teachers spray painted little gold pebbles and put them in the creek that ran through campus. we all spent the day looking for gold. after so many years in new york, i look back and think it was incredible to go to a school with a creek running through it! let alone all the cutting edge education. at barnard college i was an art history/visual art major. there were only about ten of us in the major there but we had cross registration with columbia so it was a mixture of large lectures with stellar academics and small studio classes. professors like rosalind krauss, benjamin buchloh, simon schama come to mind and i was there right when columbia’s mfa program got hot. kiki smith, elizabeth peyton, and kara walker were around the studios. there was also this really great photographer named thomas roma. he made me accept a tough brooklyn ball-buster voice into my art-making soul forever. of digital cameras, no matter how fancy, he said things like, “this isn’t a camera. this is a sweet potato.”
brooklyn and i have now been together for 17 years. back in 2000 when i graduated from college, i basically postponed getting an office job by running off to italy. i lived there for 2 years - picked olives and made drawings. earlier this year the man who owned the farm where i was living passed away and left me his estate. i guess he had written the will in 2002. he always hinted that this might happen, but i never believed him. i hadn’t spoken to him for 13 years because i got the sense he wanted things to be romantic and i didn’t want to give the wrong impression. now, i am busy with the legal transition and working with the two 75 year-old farmers rosa and giotto, along with their children and grandchildren, to keep the place going.
cultureisland: tell us more about your dot paintings and drawings. how does your interest psychotherapy play a part in your work?
carey maxon: i am interested in action patterns generally and think the world is basically made up of them. think city. think leaf growing. my early drawings were a kind of impression of the overwhelming way all these patterns overlap. the dots are more of a cessation of the overlap, a conscious choice to limit myself and provide an image of that reduction. it’s like clearing a space on a desk.
i think agnes martin said something to the effect of a good painting presents an alternative. my question is: what if the feeling of doing one random thing over and over again could put the drama of our human existence into perspective?
therapy creates a constant in which to investigate what’s going on in the psyche. doing the dots function like that too. in therapy, there are sessions; in paintings there are dots. every time i make one, part of me feels limited, and part of me feels free. this relates to single point meditation in buddhism, or ashtanga yoga practice. the focus there is on the breath. but drawing too, provides a constant for the chaos to relate to.
cultureisland: what is your process for making your work?
carey maxon: lately i have been meditating for 10 minutes before i start painting. i have a particular question in mind – like, “where should i go with this series on aluminum plates?” i just sit down, set my timer for ten minutes and make mental notes of what comes to mind. there is usually a series of thoughts or images. sometimes it’s a color, a sensation, and sometimes it’s a full composition of a painting. one per minute? not always, sometimes it's three in a quick succession and then a pause where nothing seems very significant. i try to remember what has filtered in and i write it down, or make little sketches.
doing the meditation helps me learn the difference between ideas that are ‘pursued’ from a conscious, driven mind and those that just kind of blossom up or float in from who knows where. i guess i feel like the hard worker in me will do cartwheels and swim upstream until it hurts and i ruin things; but some of my best ideas, or the ones that fascinate me personally, are the ones that just appear.
the process of being an artist isn’t that different from the average joe’s process of working at whatever he’s working at. a few goals, a few pleasures, something you try for the heck of it. an interest, some requirements, research, stabs in the dark, couple risks here and there. the whole thing about being an artist is to develop an original group of preoccupations. this may seem weird to people, it may be ‘liked’ or not but it’s really just a way of being. for me, it’s a very happy way of being. i think people who aren’t all that interested in art tend to mark artists as crazy, and i find that de-humanizing. sometimes i want to say, to the sports fanatics, for example, hey, we have something in common, we are both watching dots.
cultureisland: what kind of subject matter do you focus on? how do you name your work?
carey maxon: have you heard of black matter? it’s something like 90% of matter and we know nothing about it. i like thinking about that and presume that my body might know something about it even if my so-called brain doesn’t. when it comes to naming my work, i look at what i’ve made. i listen to what comes to mind. there will be an image or one word. i try to catch it if i can and follow it until i am somewhere interesting.
cultureisland: what inspires you to create?
carey maxon: i have been inspired by countless human creations - buildings, paintings, jewelry, textile designs, sculpture – from all over the world. the people that make these things are true creatives. what they make establishes an atmosphere for all of us to live within. i just try to be a part of that family because of how much i’ve gained from what they’ve all done for me. of course, what lies beyond that family -- and deeper within it of course -- is nature. human nature, elemental nature, plant nature, food sources – that stuff drives me and is me, i guess.
cultureisland: how has your work evolved overtime?
carey maxon: so, sometimes i feel like i have 10 visions to dip into, like ten cans of paint on a table. i’m responding to my environment and my environment changes over the years. but, i can still remember where and how i was a long time ago. there’s obsessive-isolated-repetitive-termite carey, right there next to zen reductionist carey, oh then there’s nostalgic, colored pencil, fire-island boardwalk carey. my work has appeared differently over the years, but the motivation and the approach is always the same. the center of my work is sincerity – i.e., an authentic and even fervent interest in what i am doing. you can be sure that i wanted to do everything i have ever done. not like, ‘thought it was a good idea’ but instead, i really wanted to make this. in a way art has been this fun rabbit hole, or totally private way to freak out, dance my way into oblivion, build things, climb mountains, go on trips and even get some good rest. it’s me, it’s my life. is your life always the same? it is so pleasurable for me. the feeling of freedom is one of the major things i like about it. i never reach a new visual interest – like faces or paper dolls – and think, oh but how will that relate to my previous body of work?
maybe my next step is to consider these artistic periods aesthetically, like imagine them as a row of developments and work on what’s next as a type of aesthetic answer to what came before. i will say, “maybe” on that one. the factor of the wild and unknown has always been an element of my work. i work and i work (and try not to be too strategic, pretentious, egotistical or market oriented about it) and figure that in the end it will stand for something. now that i think about it, that is exactly how i made those drawings in my twenties. mark here, mark there, mark here, mark there, until there’s one big – or 40 x 60 inch - picture of a bunch of marks i didn’t know why i was making them. they really resonated with people. maybe it’s just that, the inanity, and beauty too, of incessant activity with an undetermined purpose.
cultureisland: you worked for the print shop, derriere l'etoile studios, for many years. how has your relationship with the owner, maurice, influenced your work? what was it like working there?
carey maxon: working at the shop?! doing the books was like getting a drivers license to adulthood. witnessing artists like rita ackermann, tracey emin, josh smith, whitfield lovell, and charlene von heyl do their jobs?! watching them is like winning the lotto as far as jobs in new york go. at a print shop you actually see them work. how do they move their arms, how often do they step back, what kind of mood are they in, what do they like to eat and drink when they work. i witnessed all of them, and those are just a few of my favorites. i have been very very lucky. when he met me, i think maurice saw a pretty vulnerable character. my work had fallen out of favor, i was socially rather disconnected, i’d been sold as an ‘outsider’ but i think he knew i wasn’t exactly that. i got the sense that he saw ‘something wrong with this picture’ and he just took me under his wing so we could figure it out. i remember once he painted “help me help carey” in blue letters on a white t-shirt – he put a mexican mask on his face and i took a picture. it’s his visual sensibility, technical know-how, persistent sense of humor within the creative process, and again a good dose of ball-buster, that does just that.
cultureisland: who are some of your favorite artists?
carey maxon: louise bourgeois, hilma af klint, piero della francesca, yayoi kusama, agnes martin, francesco clemente, joan mitchell, rose wylie.
cultureisland: what are you listening to right now? have you watched anything inspiring lately?
carey maxon: right now i'm listening to kollektiv turmstrasse. a track called “sorry i am late.”recently, i watched an hbo doc – autism in love. it's about adults on the spectrum developing romantic relationships. amazing. also watched a netflix series called run. it’s fiction, but realist. their lives are low-income lives. one is about an illegal immigrant selling dvds. follows her through her travails. i have always liked realism in film.
cultureisland: what are your favorite places to eat, shop, drink coffee in your neighborhood?
carey maxon: i don’t really eat shop or drink that much. i am super human ca-ray max-on!!! but when i do…. crema, ashbox, electric nest, kula yoga, vinebox, eddys room.