Age 22 • Lives Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood • Creates Cleveland’s near west side • Learned BFA in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art

By Amanda Koehn

Take the style of an idealistic, posed portrait – similar to the 17th century court paintings of Diego Velázquez – and infuse it with subculture references and details, and you might be experiencing the work of Maxmillian Peralta.

For Peralta, a 2021 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, painting is not only a way he presents his polished technical skills, but also incorporates longtime interests like streetwear and tattooing. 

“I think something some people don’t realize about my paintings is they are sort of a critique and a celebration,” he says. “It’s a celebration in the form of like aesthetics and how it looks and the history it’s pulling from. But it’s a critique in its over the top-ness and its sort of ridiculousness.”

He became interested in fashion through skateboarding and its associated styles, and as a result of inheriting a bunch of suits from his grandfather. The suits were tailored for his grandfather and had their last name sewed inside.

“I think that sort of awoke in me some idea of presentation in apparel,” Peralta explains. “That’s what got me into fashion, but I think it’s an interesting metaphor I was going after in terms of self-presentation and how to display yourself.” 

“Sneakerhead III” (2021) by Maxmillian Peralta. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

During an interview at the Electric Gardens apartments in Cleveland’s Tremont, where he resides and also assists with creative jobs, he shows off a kind of classic Maxmillian Peralta painting – a portrait decked out in Louis Vuitton. The subject’s head is a Louis Vuitton shoe. A sneakerhead, quite literally. 

“I wanted to do something super ridiculous and out of the ordinary,” he says. “I wanted to sort of play with the idea of, what if this person cared more about their shoes on their feet than their head almost? Which is ostensibly the whole point of your portrait is to have your face painted.” 

“The Scribe” (2020). Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In his work, he draws a parallel between historic subjects of paintings, where they posed in garments and jewels showing off their material wealth, with people who do exactly the same today – but within different styles and subcultures.

Those interests were explored deeply during Peralta’s time at CIA. In a dual show he and his friend and classmate Ethan Bowman proposed their junior year, the pair explored fashion and self-presentation. For the show, “Ligne de Vêtements,” which means clothing line in French (VETEMENTS is also a luxury brand), Peralta painted and Bowman contributed digital illustrations. 

“I was told by several people on that opening night, that was the most people they had ever seen at that gallery,” Peralta says of that evening in February 2020 in CIA’s Ann and Norman Roulet Student + Alumni Gallery.

A year later, his Bachelor of Fine Arts project took a dive into various kinds of subcultures, such as hunting, video gaming and boxing, exploring some subcultures he’s less intimately familiar with. The project, “Postmodern Drip,” also forced him to embrace showing his work virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’d say my BFA is my biggest accomplishment – it’s a whole year worth of work and working throughout the limitations of the pandemic, how I was going to present that,” he says. 

Growing up in Lakewood as one of seven children, Peralta says he and his siblings were creative in both art and music. His artist father, Len Peralta, quit his advertising job to pursue art full time when Peralta’s younger sister was born. His father, who now teaches graphic design at CIA, also taught at the Beck Center for the Arts, where Peralta took classes.

Above: “Dibbs and James” (2020). Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. Opposite page: Maxmillian Peralta at the Electric Gardens in Tremont. Behind him are “Sneakerhead III,” left, “Self Portrait in Supreme.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

Before college, Peralta won a national Scholastic Art and Writing Award for one of his paintings. He traveled to New York City with his parents to receive the award at Carnegie Hall.

“I chose art because my older brother is just a savant at the guitar, so I was like, there’s no need to compete with him with music, so I’ll do art,” Peralta says, adding that his high school, St. Edward in Lakewood, wasn’t the most art-centric and his teachers were “nervous” about him pursuing art school. “But it was also what I had more passion for.”

Similar to his father, Peralta now pursues art, mostly commissions, full time. He also does tattoos, after completing an apprenticeship with his cousin.  

“I haven’t had to do (tattooing) in a while because painting has been really what’s driving me along” he says. 

Having had work exhibited in the 2020 Waterloo Arts Juried Exhibition and with his paintings regularly showcased at Sunbird Studios & Technologies, a recording studio in downtown Cleveland, commissions have been keeping him busy recently. He’s hoping to begin creating more personal work again, and seek exhibitions, once the commissions slow down.

Photo / Amanda Koehn

Graduating and navigating the art world as the pandemic rages on, an “asterisk is applied to everything as you get started” professionally, he explains  – but it’s something he doesn’t let get him down. As an emerging artist, Peralta says security and confidence are some of the biggest challenges he faces. That, and the terrifying moment of staring at a blank canvas – each an opportunity that also comes with a chance to fail, he says. 

“It’s remembering to keep your standards high, but your expectations low,” he says. “Because a lot of artists get opportunities dangled in front of them and out of a hundred, 10 are serious, and one of them actually happens. It’s just the way it is unfortunately … so just keep your enthusiasm and your morale up.” 

Right now though, it’s working out for Peralta. In fact, the sneakerhead painting sold and is headed to its owner.  

“It’s bittersweet to sell a painting,” he says. “But they say you don’t want to die with all your paintings in your basement. So, I’m happy to give it up.”

“Maxmillian’s paintings scrutinize America’s fascination with the variety of subcultures and self-selected identities his subjects embody, in turn implicating viewers’ own conception and presentation of self. The work engages in a dialogue with portraiture’s storied history while bringing its intentions into a contemporary dialogue.”

– Tony Ingrisano, associate professor, chair of painting department, Cleveland Institute of Art