Profile and photograph by Michael C. Butz
Years 24 • Lives Akron • Creates Akron • Degrees BFA in painting and drawing, The University of Akron’s Myers School of Art
For the past several years, Max Markwald’s artwork has turned heads – literally and figuratively. He primarily creates portraits, and his large-scale oil paintings have been on view at places like Massillon Museum’s Studio M, the Malone Art Gallery at Malone University in Canton and The BOX Gallery in downtown Akron’s Summit Artspace.
His first major series, 2014’s “Anonymous,” dealt with transforming the unknown into the known.
“I was interested in taking normal people and using the medium to make them more important, make them iconic in some way,” he says. “I was taking people no one knew, and people would look at the paintings and say, ‘Oh, that kind of looks like Molly Ringwald.’ There was this expectation that people thought they were supposed to know who the person was, but it was nobody.”
He took a similar approach with his 2016-17 series “Rosie,” but for those works, he painted friends instead of strangers. All of his subjects were dressed like Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon that represented women joining the workforce.
While the mid-20th century Rosie was a mass-produced wartime call to action, Markwald’s Rosies are individualized and eminently more relatable to 21st century viewers. His subjects communicate a wide range of emotions, and together, the paintings offer commentary on themes such as feminism, gender identity and representations of strength.
“It was a refreshing series for me because there was a lot of collaboration between me and the subjects,” he says. “I was like, ‘What do you want your painting to look like? What take do you want to have on it?’ Letting the subjects have that decision was really interesting.”
The arts community has taken notice. Markwald’s work has repeatedly placed at juried exhibitions in the region, and last year, he earned a scholarship to participate in the summer undergraduate residency program at the New York Academy of Art.
“It opened my eyes. I got to meet so many people and learned so much there about technical skill,” he says of his New York experience. “I learned that everyone finds their own way of doing what they want. There’s no one way to be an artist, there’s no one path. Everyone gets what they want out of it.”
Markwald didn’t take interest in art until late in high school, but that was enough for him to explore it further while at The University of Akron. He was drawn to the process of making art more than the finished products he created, and he landed on using oil paints instead of acrylics for similar reasons – they force him to stop, let the paint dry and think about his work.
In addition to his schooling, he credits his time working at the Akron Art Museum as a “major influence” on his decision to pursue art.
“I was a security guard there for six years, and talking to the public about the artwork really opened my eyes to all the different purposes art can serve to different people,” he says. “I was always amazed. People would come in and they’d say something about a painting I’d seen a thousand times and (then) I’d have to look at it a completely different way.”
What’s his favorite painting at the museum? “Opened Box” by Philip Guston.
“He used to go to his studio late at night and paint until he did something that made him uncomfortable, and then he’d leave,” he explains. “Every time I look at that painting, I always try to look at his brushstrokes. I wonder at which moment he ended. I wonder what the last stroke was.”
These days, Markwald still discusses art with patrons – but it’s now his artwork that’s the topic of conversation.
“I think most people, when they see my artwork, they expect they should know what it’s about or know who the person is, but I also get a lot of people who question why I’m doing it,” he says. “To see them perplexed by it, I always find that really interesting.”
Markwald adds people assume that because he makes realistic images, there’s no concept behind them. One person in particular, he recalls, questioned one of his straightforward, realistic paintings.
“He was like, ‘that’s a really big photograph.’ ‘Well, it’s not, actually.’ I ended up talking to him about it, and he was like, ‘Why isn’t it just a photo?’ We had a long conversation, and then he left. He came back for another opening and was all fired up, and he said, ‘I get it now!’” CV
Lead image: Max Markwald in his Akron studio.
“As a student, Max pushed himself to make more work and show it at every opportunity – he had obvious ambition and guts. It’s also been exciting to see his post-baccalaureate work grow as he has continued to push his artistic practice by adding varying degrees of abstraction and scale shifts to his portraits. Some of his recent work has begun to address questions of empowerment and gender norms as well. It is especially exciting to watch young artists as they find their voice.”
– Arnold Tunstall, director, University Galleries at The University of Akron Myers School of Art
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 1, 2019.