Max Decker’s two worlds

Artist/musician Max Decker in front of his 2008 four-canvas depiction of the Bronx Queens Expressway, which sold before the show opened. — File photo by Susan Safford

West Tisbury native Max Decker is a Brooklyn-based musician and, during the summer months, a painter who shows his work at PIKNIK Fine Arts & Apparel gallery in Oak Bluffs.

His large, urban-inspired mixed media paintings have garnered a new audience for provocative, darker-themed works on the Vineyard; while, at the same time, his more classic, atmospheric landscapes have earned him comparasons to Allen Whiting — no faint praise for this 28-year-old son of Chris and Nelia Decker.

Boyish and self-effacing, Mr. Decker appears quiet and somewhat uncomfortable in the limelight. Yet his work, shown throughout the year at PIKNIK Art & Apparel in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs, has brought him significant attention.

It becomes difficult to hide when your four-canvas depiction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway fetches $12,000 before the 2008 show even opens — or when, only 23, you have to work round-the-clock to keep up with the demand for the small landscape paintings you sell at the weekly Artisans Festivals in West Tisbury.

And all the while, Decker was quietly composing electronic music, just beginning to take himself seriously, and to get gigs in small bars and clubs in New York City.

It may look like he’s living the dream from the outside, but inside Max Decker there are gently warring factions. Still, he seems to take his varying creative urges in stride. He paints, composes, and plays several instruments. What emerges might be pastoral landscapes or brooding, disturbing evocations of city life and its residents.

“Music and art are a similar roller coaster,” he says. “Painting, especially landscape painting, is more meditative. With music, it’s more manic. When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, it’s terrible.”

Describing himself as “easygoing,” Mr. Decker is spare in his words. But when asked if his artistic nature is in conflict with itself, a smile lights his face. “My music and art complement one another. When I grow tired of one, I do the other. I’ve learned so much about creativity by doing both,” he says.

Now in his fifth year with PIKNIK Art & Apparel, he and gallery owner Michael Hunter have developed a genuine trust and affection for one another. They worked together to find possible solutions for the high cost of framing the 20 to 25 images Mr. Decker plans to display in his solo show opening this weekend on September 11.

“Michael provides a platform for me to explore things I might not have tried,” Mr. Decker says. “He suggests new directions I can take. I started this 16-panel painting as an experiment.” He points to a very large work on his studio wall. “But because Michael was excited about it, I’ll finish it.”

Mr. Hunter nods. “Not everyone works that way. A lot of artists don’t welcome or need input. I’ve never tried to steer Max, but I like to show his different styles of work. Having sold his large painting of the Expressway shows that the market here can handle it. People have grown to expect more than pretty landscapes.”

“We speak as friends often,” Mr. Hunter concludes. “I don’t have to ask, ‘How’s it going?’ He doesn’t need to feel pressure from the outside.”

Because Mr. Decker focused on his music this past winter and spring, developing a body of work for the fall show at PIKNIK became something of a race to the finish. While he normally arrives on the Vineyard in early summer, his return was delayed until late July this year. Once here, he felt stymied for two weeks. “I thought I might have to quit,” he admits. Chuckling, he adds, “But I think that all the time.”

By the very end of August, his new body of work was lining the walls of the barn-like studio on his parents’ rural property where Mr. Decker lives in summers. It’s obvious that he works well under pressure. Depictions of iconic Vineyard scenes, real or imagined, convey the lush beauty of the Island, its green fields, serene ponds, and ancient trees.

Painting outdoors, as well as from digital reference photographs he shoots, and from memory, Mr. Decker views landscape as “a springboard” to other types of work. “Landscapes are just arrangements of color,” he says, “the same as any painting.” He admits that he found the genre inescapable. “When you grow up on the Island it’s hard to avoid. I consider myself 100 years behind the modern trend in landscape painting. But last year I was 120 years behind.”

He says he is learning subtlety in his landscapes, a quality he hopes to bring to his urban images. “Landscapes are like painting a whole wall of cotton. They can be so atmospheric.”

He is, he insists, looking for a bridge between his two bodies of work. “My landscapes are getting more non-Vineyardish and my other stuff is getting less scary,” he observes. “I’m closer to having my works merge but, in the meantime, I think they somehow reinforce one another.”

As for his music, that, for now, is confined to his New York life: “I’m looking forward to getting back to it after the show opens at PIKNIK,” he explains. Until then, he’ll be in his studio, putting the finishing touches on his paintings, large and small, gentle and bold.

Max Decker’s opening reception is Saturday, September 11, 4 to 7pm at PIKNIK Art & Apparel, 99 Dukes County Avenue, Oak Bluffs. 508-693-1366.