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Creative Conversations: with Maxwell Schenkel

Decadent Cosmos had the pleasure of speaking with Maxwell Schenkel (he/him) about the creative process as a spiritual journey, the correspondence between art and science through curiosity, and the emotional qualities that are expressed through a work's color and composition. Enjoy!

Maxwell Schenkel

DECADENT: So I know that you are a very philosophically-minded person and you talked a bit about how your art and life overlap so I want to begin with that idea and what that means to you.

MAXWELL: That's something that I have been thinking about and self-analyzing a lot recently: how I make myself a subject of my own work sometimes. I know sometimes that doesn't fit in with some contemporary philosophical thinking, which is often about the dissolution of the self and the external factors that play into your "individuality".

But I also find that even if the self is a constructed illusion, or whatever it is, it's still one that's productive, and helps me progress my mental state, my ambitions, and my artistic goals in a more coherent way.

I don't necessarily think that the arbitrary decision to make myself a subject is a bad thing. And I've also tried to explore the idea that doing things for yourself isn't as bad as you might think, especially having grown up in a more conservative Christian faith. Sometimes you end up with this internal disposition - a lot of people called this "Catholic guilt" - where you reflect any negativity that happens as a function of your own being, as though you are destined to feel guilt and to suffer because of Original Sin.

Blue Hair Pandora's Box by Maxwell

You end up with the idea that we essentially have no freedom to ever transcend our guilt and sin in our own lifetime and can only ever escape from that in the afterlife. Whether or not it's real is another question, but I think that takes away some of the beauty and the purpose of living a human life. It shouldn't just be some preparatory process to move into some ontologically unprovable place. It's actually more exciting to try to find something here.

But that's a little bit of a tangent. Relating back to what I was saying before, I've always created art. I was always drawing little scribbles and taking in the things around me and creating creatures or scenes or narrative structures. I didn't really get serious about it until I made the conscious choice to study it, critique my own work, and study art history.

DECADENT: I didn't plan on going here, but now that you mention it I'm curious to know: were you raised Catholic? Have you seen that upbringing come into play in your creative process at all?

MAXWELL: Yes, my parents were Catholic, but it was good because they never came down on me about the faith themselves. I went to CCD because they wanted me to get confirmed. Looking back on it now, I'm sure that there were elements of it where they were trying to teach us productive morals and how to function in a way that wouldn't harm other people but there were also worse parts of it that, when I deconstruct that experience, were essentially ideological persuasion or propaganda. Some of my preconceptions about the way the world worked were good, but there was also a toxic underbelly that I wasn't fully aware of until I really started to question the foundations of that system, especially when I got to college where I got a little more space from it.

My spiritual journey is a very important part of my artistic process and how it's evolved over time.

Spirituality is more of a dynamic process than a fixed dogmatism [that presides] over your entire lifespan.

DECADENT: Does your art change in subject matter or in form as you continue on this spiritual journey?

MAXWELL: As I became more spiritually open, this was actually when I was an atheist and I felt as lost as an atheist as when I was Christian, right? (Now I'm in a more in-between space, and I don't feel as lost.) But when I was in that pure atheistic world, where there was no God, there was no metaphysical purpose or reason for anything, I was just as confused. Because of that, I was just looking at the world very objectively, not really questioning it, just kind of accepting it, because I knew there was nothing I could really do to change it. So I was like, "Alright, I'm going to reflect how things are, things that have to be the case, and then put that in my artwork."

Caesar by Maxwell

As I became more spiritually questioning, a lot of that having to do with traumatic experiences, like losing family members, as well as positive experiences with psychedelics and stuff like that, and by gaining more individuality upon coming to college, I began to take other perspectives more seriously.

Although it's scarier to accept that the answer is confusing, and not necessarily apparent, I was okay with that. It might seem a very small thing, but actualizing based on that concept is a radical shift in how you live your life and [understand] your existence.

That began to come out in my artwork. I would make a lot of art without looking at anything. I was doing a lot of action painting. I was doing a lot of abstract work, and a lot of abstract work that would have elements of the representational within it, but the color palette would otherwise be very chromatic and diverse, which I'm actually trying to rein back a little bit now.

DECADENT: Tell me more about that: how are you planning to change up your palette and why?

MAXWELL: I'm in the process of balancing how the colors are used. There's been a lot of contrast, a lot of repetition of the same pattern over and over again [in my work]. Neurobiologically, you're going to respond to that. There are areas in your brain that increase in their activity in response to high contrast, and some people are more sensitive to big spikes in neural activity. That can come out as a stress response or just a feeling of discomfort, or it can be even more subtle than that. But I think that it's interesting to explore the fact that you can produce effects and emotions in people based on the colors that you use. I want to diversify the kinds of emotions that I produce in people.

I realized that in these past three years, I've been producing work that make people unstable visually in a way that I appreciate, and in a way that causes their eyes to move around the canvas a lot, because there's a lot of different color anchor points. But I want to explore the idea of having one specific color predominate the space with, maybe, some highlights or very subtle marks to add some more visual and aesthetic diversity, but not to completely distract from the main feeling that's being conveyed by the color.

Reaching for Hope by Maxwell

DECADENT: I think it's good to have creative practices that help you push yourself. And you described creativity to me in similar terms previously, as something that always pushes boundaries and creates work that is "unfamiliar". That word really stood out to me, could you talk further about how creativity allows you to make something new and unfamiliar?

MAXWELL: I feel like part of that comes from the fact that I mis-recognize the internal and external aspects of my existence occasionally. And that sometimes comes out as a unfamiliar artistic or aesthetic feature of my work. Or the subject matter of the work could be unfamiliar.

I know that sometimes he doesn't align with modern psychological theory, but I love Lacan. There's questionable validity to some of his theories but I think it's an interesting way of looking at the world more artistically, rather than scientifically.

I like the idea of the Other, kind of a step beyond the unconscious, where the Other outside of you and the other within you are ultimately the same thing. And that the mis-recognition of the world around you also produces a mis-recognition within yourself. There's a dialectic between those two things that creates that unconscious experience.

I also try to think about this visually: if the things that I'm aware of are one part of a Venn diagram, and the unconscious is another part of the diagram, then there's that little overlap in the middle.

What I try to do in my art process is push them a little closer together, so that my awareness overlaps more thoroughly with my unconscious. That way I can clarify that space in a more coherent, artistic way.

And then when I'm not creating, I have to slide that back. Otherwise, I'm living in this strange, delusional world. I can't just be questioning everything, like when I'm trying to eat my lunch I can't be wondering, "Is this real?" So it's a process that you have to kind of do over and over and over again, to make sure that you find your own personal space within it.

Larry David by Maxwell

DECADENT: When you feel very creatively blocked, and I know you told me earlier that you've been in that sort of state, do you feel anxious about that or is it OK to not create anything for a time?

MAXWELL: It's a balance between the two. [As a student] having to finish a piece by a certain date forces me to work harder, and the anxiety and stress of a deadline can really kick-start my artistic process. But it depends, because sometimes I really need to step back, especially in my personal practice.

Right now, I don't have the priority of making art as the predominant thing in my life. It's something that's necessary and needs to be there, but it doesn't need to be The Thing that I'm doing [at this point].

DECADENT: I absolutely feel that. Sometimes your creative flow requires that you not be creative for a little while.

MAXWELL: Yeah, that brings us back to the unconscious, it's not something that you can describe, you don't have the language or the reason or the logic to be able to describe it fully because it sits outside of [description]. If you can begin to understand it, it's no longer the unconscious.

Pandora's Box by Maxwell

So you need a different approach to be able to clarify that space. Although the arts don't perfectly describe it, I think they allow you to approach [the unconscious] in a different way, and then maybe you can understand just 1% of it. If you keep doing that, even though you won't ever complete the big picture, in my opinion, in one lifetime, you might be able to get to the point where you can make some pretty good guesses about who you are as a whole person.

DECADENT: So, because you study both art and science, I'm curious to know whether you think art can actually contribute something to scientific studies. Or, if you're not sure of that, how do your studies in the two fields interact with each other?

MAXWELL: I always seek to answer the question, "What part of myself is fixed beyond the external influence of the stimuli and the events that occur beyond me? Is there something that's a part of me that has always been there?"

More recently, I've come to the conclusion, whether it's correct or not, that my curiosity [is that fixed thing] and that these other states that I have, whether that be depression, anxiety, euphoria, mania, emerge from that curiosity. If I'm curious about what's going to happen next, that's going to produce anxiety. If I'm happy, and I fixate on that for too long, that's going to create more negative states.

Pandora's Box (in colored pencil) by Maxwell

But if I'm curious about things that generate beneficial and positive influences, then that becomes the best parts of my personality, right? So I think that curiosity is essentially equal to creativity in some respects.

I think creativity is the willingness to undermine that which you love deeply. I think that someone that loves their discipline is going to be the first one to question how correct it is. You don't feel that strongly about the importance of what you're doing if you're not willing to question it.

DECADENT: How do you feel you question your own ideas, either aesthetically or in scientific setting with your artwork?

MAXWELL: Again, a lot of my work has been self-explorative. It's almost like a battleground within different parts of myself. I'm trying to undermine the parts