High art, low art. Some barriers fabricated, some to be debated. High art, built into institutions and education with a series of formalities and systems to ensure that only those who move through the strict gauntlet of routine will be recognized. Low art, if there is such a thing, is delegated to the streets, where graffiti, t-shirts, and sandcastles built from the beaches of the 99% exist ad nauseum. Usually, the politics of major institutions and museums carefully guarded entry to the upper tiers. The age of the internet has cracked a great number of those glass ceilings. Hype-based street culture has vaulted into the realm of high art, where traditional schooling and formal education bleeds the same colors as Supreme. Banksy shredded a work live at Sotheby’s, Virgil Abloh makes $600 shirts for Louis Vuitton. I myself am never one to shy away from a baroque painting screen-printed onto a vintage Carhartt tee. But what about the opposite? A Balenciaga Shirt in a baroque painting? The barriers between worlds are thinning rapidly. But there are still bridges to be crossed, particularly in traditional art. Because the two sides are so diametrically opposed to one another, rarely does one cross over into the other, the traditional route often piercingly elitist, and the avant garde doubly rebellious. Who would be so bold as to walk the line?
Along the canvas runway comes a young Maxmillian Peralta. A name you mightn't have heard before. A 21 year old Cleveland native, he’s now wrapping up his senior year at the Cleveland Institute of Art (One might even say he works at the CIA). I discovered Maxmillian on Reddit’s r/streetwear after he posted a portrait of himself in a Supreme balaclava, and then a portrait of someone with a Reebok x Maison Margiela Tabi sneaker for a head (like that one at the top of the page). But it wasn’t just a picture on a smudged mirror with pixelated resolution. It was a painting. A gallery-quality work of art. Something that took the once-instant of gratification of hype into a deeper connection with the fabrics and social commentary. And true to the community, Maxmillian enjoys his hypebeast clothing as much as the next aficionado, but with the added depth of taking them into hand-stretched canvas over bespoke frames that the artist makes himself at a quiet woodshop in East Cleveland.
The inversion from putting paintings onto articles of clothing to putting genuine fashion-house pieces inside of paintings is such a bizarrely simple idea that it’s a wonder that no one’s done it before. Except, they have, sort of. Warlords and kings, socialites of all kinds have been doing this exact motion literally hundreds, nay, thousands of years. Pictures of kingdoms at their zenith, portraits of prized bulls, statues commemorating battles and victories are all flexes. And so now those monuments are posts of Louis Vuitton wallets, CPFM sweaters, AF1’s; the wealth of the millennial. And for many, those posts are seemingly blasé, of being “candid”. But they’re not. There’s intentionality in those pics, from the staging, to the lighting, to filters, right down to the act of posting them. And Maxmillian Peralta is keenly aware of that, and in painting them, giving absolute certainty that the clothing, positioning, and models are fabricated for the specific purpose of flexing.
“Like Conor McGregor posting a picture in the ring in Gucci shorts. I specifically remember, it was of him in the ring and the caption was ‘The Shorts are Gucci’, and I was like, 'Holy shit, the flex is so hard.' Like I saw a likeness between social media flexing and Jaques Louis David painting Napoleon Bonaparte on his throne. Or like King Louis the XIV, the Sun King, in his robe. It’s such a human thing to flaunt your wealth. And painting was a thing really relegated to the aristocrats. So I thought, what if people painted like, flex outfits. And they positioned themselves as wealthy when really owning like a Supreme hoodie is nothing. And I feel that participating in the subculture gives me enough right to make that critique. I’m not looking in and calling these people assholes. I’m like, ‘I’m one of you assholes.’ ”
Opting out from the gallery circuit of his peers, Max has gone fully independent. His paint is his livelihood, and if you don't work, you don't eat. So he works. Constantly. The pieces are huge, many standing at 5 feet, and he works quickly, usually finishing after 3 to 4 non-stop days of painting, sustained only by PB&J sandwiches. With the diet of a 1st grader and the keen eye of a veteran art dealer, Maxmillian has a very hard line in his mind about what constitutes good art.
“I had won some awards in high school, so I knew I was good, but I was like, am I going to be able to make a living off of this? I would’ve never had the consciousness or nuance to articulate my art without my professors. They would make a point, and I would go , ‘Holy shit, yeah, that is what I’m trying to say.’ A lot of artist statements are driven by intentionality. I think people expect consistency and sound technical aspects.”
The strokes are deft, background ranging from brilliant hunting lodge fireplaces to tattoo parlors where Maxmillian has also worked. All his subjects are personal friends that Peralta configures and clothes, sometimes acquiring pieces simply to paint later. It brings authenticity to the braggadocio, the temporary rush of new clothing becomes embedded in permanent form. After painting them, the artist often won’t wear the clothing ever again; it’s served its purpose. It’s hard to say that only buying a piece just to paint it is a higher purpose than doing it just to post a picture for momentary gratification. But just because its hard to say, doesn’t mean it’s not true. And with a world that has been blindingly saturated with high quality photos, cartoony animations, and a total overload of images, it comes to mind that visual artists, particularly painters, haven't had a massive celebrity status since Warhol.
"I think my goal is to make people excited about painting again. Not to say that I care about fame or anything, but it would be amazing to see people get as excited about the person behind the brush as they do for musicians behind the mic. Just to see artists successful in the way that musicians are successful, that athletes are successful. I just really care about the artists so much. I was working at the museum and would hear someone talk shit, saying they could do that. Like man, you don't know shit about Mark Rothko... I have a dream where there's a Lil Uzi Vert who paints."
Is pop culture edging it's way into high art? Is high art even a thing anymore? With the advent of the quarantine and paint by numbers, artists in the visual medium seem to have made a comeback. It's not hard to spot. Kehinde Wiley may be one of the most famous painters today, having done Obama's presidential portrait, and Banksy is an anonymous amalgam of street and gallery art, and is by far more famous of the two. The point of differentiation is the aptitude for antics. With our hunger for content, and split-second attention spans, whatever seems to make the loudest noise seems to garner the most attention, and from there, that added spice of authenticity. Maxmillian Peralta has the total palate of formal education and rebellious independence in his works.
The question remains, is painting about to have its 15 minutes?
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