Max Decker paints in narratives, capturing everyday life in his work

Max Decker is a very competent landscape painter, but he is an exceptional figurative painter. He calls it narrative, as in telling a story, or recounting a moment observed. As his work has focused closer to home, it has become more personal and more universal at the same time.

Almost all of the paintings at the Field Gallery, dated 2019 and 2020, are of this genre. They are mostly quiet scenes of family life. His wife, Laura, and son, Robin, are his subjects, as is the house they currently occupy. “I like how the house has become a character in the painting,” he told me. It is a wonderful house, with windows that bring in sharp light to make interesting patterns and shadow shapes across walls and floors. Glimpses of the outside landscape can be seen through the windows, too, setting the house and its occupants firmly in their place.

When I arrived at Max’s studio, the first work I saw was a group of charcoal drawings, some pinned to the wall, some strewn across his worktable. They were small, maybe 10 by 14 inches, the beginning of his process. He told me that he has been drawing more on paper to be able to keep his drawings. He missed losing them under layers of paint as his paintings progressed. 

Drawings, to me, are the most personal of an artist’s work. They can be carefully rendered, but are more often the work of a moment spent looking at a scene, or whatever has caught the artist’s attention. They may be used to figure out a composition or a part of one. It was a gift to be able to see them, then to see how they were transformed on the canvases that filled the studio.

Max explained that he began a painting by drawing in his composition on a toned canvas. He uses a fairly limited palette of colors, mostly Gamblin oils, with no medium. “Just straight paint,” he said. The colors are rich, and often used in unexpected combinations. He likes painting a small study, then making larger and larger paintings of the same subject, working out different problems as they present themselves. His preferred sizes are the mid-range ones, up to 2 by 3 feet. He said, “I love those sizes, because you have the opportunity for the paint to become abstract. On a larger painting, you lose that. It has to be tighter.” 

An example is “Tulips in January,” a series of three paintings of Laura walking into a bedroom carrying a vase of tulips. In one, she is deep in the doorway, almost disappearing in the dark background, not yet having entered the sunlit bedroom, but still there with the red tulips in her hand barely visible, one carefully placed highlight describing the edge of her face. In the other paintings, she has come into the bedroom to set the vase on a bedside table beside a jumble of sheets and pillows, the room illuminated by unseen windows that cast light across the bed and the wall. The doorway remains a dark rectangle. The patterns of raking light and shadows become the subject even more than the woman with her bouquet.

Other paintings are of the same captured moments, as the occupants of Max’s life live in this home with its distinctive spaces and atmosphere. The dailyness, the unremarkableness of folding tea towels or bathing and dressing the child, of brushing his hair, of napping on the sofa of an evening, of walking into a room or away up some stairs are all moments in anyone’s life, but by design and skill, Max has made them into art.

There is a painting of a branch of forsythia. It is not in a vase or any arrangement. It is a branch of forsythia, a perfect and perfectly painted branch of forsythia, so sensitively described by the brushfuls of paint, against the dark background and the mid-value of the tabletop. All the light is yellow highlights of flower petals. The background paint wraps around each blossom, caressing and sharpening its outline.

Many of the paintings combine landscapes, simplified to a few gestural shapes, that show what’s outside the windows and open doorways that form the structure of Max Decker’s compositions. “Laura on the Porch” is one of my favorites. It shows Laura standing, back to the viewer, outside an open doorway, looking out across the lawn toward one of these landscapes, mere stripes of colors. She appears to have just awakened, still in her robe and socks, shadows pooling at her feet. Inside, the room is rendered in quiet grays that lead the viewer’s eyes right to that light-colored figure. “It’s not often that I get everything I like in a painting,” Max said when I commented on it.

As our conversation continued, it moved into the esoterica of painting. Max told me about a Billy Collins quote that deeply affected him: “It wasn’t until I realized I had nothing to say that I found my voice.” I understood that, as Collins often seems to write about nothing, about ordinary moments looking out his window, drinking coffee, cleaning and arranging his workspace.

A painter’s workday is much the same. Looking out the window, drinking coffee, puttering in the studio. The window muntins might frame a view, or make a background for the coffee cups left on the table from breakfast. “I’ve always liked narrative painting. Everything is right there. I’m not looking for something to paint.” 

Max’s favorite painters are Fairfield Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, and Pierre Bonnard, all of whom focused much of their work painting their household interiors and family members engaged in their daily lives. Bonnard’s famous series of paintings of his wife in her bath come to mind. Porter painted his wife in her sickbed as he sat with her. His children and visiting friends all became subjects for paintings. Diebenkorn painted his wife in interiors that were angular and abstract in a way that prepared us for the Ocean Park series of his late years.

And so it has been that Max Decker discovered his enthusiasm for what was right in front of him all along. “The transition to painting interiors is really exciting. You get all these colors from artificial surfaces, the juxtaposition of organic and architectural, high-contrast compositions. If you put all those things together into a painting, you can’t lose.”

 

Decker’s paintings will be featured in a show beginning August 9 at the Field Gallery.