Max Markwald’s Stunningly Intimate Paintings on View at BAYarts

Max Markwald in his studio.

Back in September of 2018, Markwald legally changed his name to Max, and began painting large self-portraits documenting his gender transition. The tall vertical canvases are identical in size, impressively painted, and are all titled simply for the month they were created. Several of them are currently on view at BAYarts, in a new show titled “Skin” (until March 6), alongside smaller studies of body parts and details of himself.

As he explains in his artist statement, a curator asked him once who his favorite painters were, and when his answers were all male artists she said: “You need to think about what it means to be a female artist!” Markwald was caught off guard, and thought, “I don’t want to be a female artist, I just want to be a painter.” After experimenting with gender roles in paintings of his friends as Rosie the Riveter, himself as a young tomboy, and hating how people expected his paintings to be “pretty”, Markwald took the plunge. He explains it was “the push I needed to come out and be myself–Max Markwald, just an average-joe painter.”

But Markwald is hardly just an average-joe painter. He is a seriously talented portraitist, working in oil primarily on panel, his blocky brushwork is tantalizingly raw in places – laid down in rough shapes that coalesce the farther you move away from it. Other places are treated with photographic accuracy – showing the impressive skill with which he handles the paint to suit his needs.

Max Markwald, March, Oil on Panel (Detail Below)


In each painting Markwald presents himself in various poses, occasionally obscuring his face with his hands or a scarf, from behind, or in the darkness. The tone of each varies, but throughout one feels the intimacy and emotional nakedness on view. It can’t be easy to bare oneself’s most private side while in such a vulnerable state, but there is also a sense of emergence – of strength as Markwald presents his changing self for all to see.


Max Markwald, June, Oil on Panel

The size of the paintings is also notable. The large canvases force the viewer to truly interact with the subject, take in every detail, every nuance – the monumentality of them is a strong, and I think, successful artistic choice. It calls to mind the towering portraits of Alex Katz or Chuck Close, and the vertical format for some reason makes me think of a cell phone – that ubiquitous selfie-mode verticality that is starting to pervade our worldview.

Max Markwald, December, Oil on Panel

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the significance of BAYarts featuring an exhibition of work by a trans artist, about their transition. It is a welcome sign of inclusion, and reflects a larger national trend toward a greatly increased visibility for transgender artists. But one of the sadder aspects of increased visibility of trans figures has coincided with an uptick in violence against them – the staggering number of deaths due to anti-transgender violence in this country is abhorrent. But I try to think about how important this show might be to a young artist – seeing it might suggest possibilities to someone who has never seen a person like themself in such a space before, and that gives me hope.


Max Markwald – SKIN is on view in the Sullivan Family Gallery at BAYarts through March 6, 2020.


The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.