128 John Maggie

Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1978 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Ann Arbor, MI

John Maggie practices an exuberant form of syphilitic painting, a disease of imaging afflicted merrily upon the construct of painting itself; a good-humored sickness that attacks the root of pictorial convention. This is both painting and anti-painting. Maggie takes the banal trappings of tradition—the landscape, the still life, the nude, the maritime, the equestrian—and joyfully slings mud at them. In a work such as Frankly Feather (2019), there is an embrace of thrift store painting—found images that allow the artist to revel in failed attempts at image-making where notions of good and bad are jumbled. (A painting is good because it is bad.) Adam & Sue (2015) is both right and wrong: the proportions of the figures are off, the composition is imbalanced, foreground and background seem dislocated. Comedy results as the frolicsome beach couple are clumsily sexualized, with Sue’s breasts squeezing together above her distended belly and Adam’s erect penis glowing and pointing toward a branch. Within a single work, Maggie uses clashing approaches to representation, as Sue’s tightly rendered face is partnered with Adam’s ham-handed visage. In Night Rider (2018), he renders illusionism absurd and the oft-applied conception of conventional beauty as useless. Employing an abject Romanticism, he one-ups English horse portraitist George Stubbs (1724-1806) and pushes his regal subject into outrageous theatre with excessive baubles evocative of My Little Pony.

When examining the surface of Bad Day (2014) there can be an impulse to bite, poke, squeeze and pop its excrescences. Many of Maggie’s paintings are covered in extruded, painterly eruptions, often highly scatological in form. The term “’Bad’ Painting” is appropriate here. “Bad” Painting was an ironic designation coined by critic Marcia Tucker (1940-2006) to describe a trend in 1970s American figurative painting in which artists intentionally cultivated a disrespect for convention through the use of deformation and the irreverent blending of high-low sources. Much of “Bad” Painting comically challenges notions of refinement, flagrantly embracing subject matter held in contempt by more mainstream tastes.

In Maggie’s work, there can be a whiff of the soft core pornographic. The titillation of looking at his images blends into a sickness of excessive display. Attraction and repulsion result. Much of Western figurative painting has involved objectification cloaked in an aura of “shame free” viewing: a naked body pretends to be primarily about high art principles of image construction. Maggie muddies this. A portion of his figurative work is homoerotic in nature, sourced from the pages of 1960s magazines such as The Young Physique, Muscular Development, and Strength and Health, which in their time surreptitiously traded in that homoeroticism. What Maggie does with paint is to apply a camp sensibility to his sources. Spectacles of flesh are adorned with rot. Nudes occupying mawkish idylls are shot through with knowingly absurdist flourishes. Specimens of muscled, tanned and oiled heroism are undone by one exaggeration too many.  

Sweet & Sour Cowboy (2014) takes a shirtless and jeaned bareback cowboy and shrouds him, his horse, and his environment in an air of decay. The cliched image of rugged masculinity is recast as homoerotic with a pair of tight and seemingly transparent jeans showcasing the rider’s buttocks. But this eroticism is undone by the scabrous horse’s behind and a swarm of flies buzzing about. In Sam & John (2015), specimens of youthful physical perfection are immersed in colorful, painterly putrefaction in an overwrought landscape brimming with Sturm und Drang. A crudely rendered blue snake at the lower right of the canvas echoes the exposed blue member of the kneeling figure at the left. The kitsch of the source material is embraced and heightened, complicating the conversation of titillation.

“Camp rests on innocence. That means camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (2014) Maggie begins with the false innocence of convention and then moves toward hammy debasement. Sontag further defined camp as embracing banal and vulgar “bad art” or kitsch, being anti-serious in its comic refusal of conventions. In Family (2016), this manifests as the exaggeration of sexual characteristics with garish femaleness and excessive he-man-ness (cheesecake and beefcake).With this satirical portrayal of a family, Maggie’s painting is an act of camping up the image, stripping away sincerity and employing a detached theatricality, an irony that punctures seriousness and purity of representation. In his artistic recalcitrance, Maggie hijacks established pictorial currency, using abnormality to reroute the image as conceptual adornment, transforming what was benign into a provocation that exposes the tackiness of decorative beauty.

Ryan Standfest, July 2019

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