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Max Kauffman Paints Folk Tales About the End of Civilization

Everyone’s got a theory on how it all ends. Kauffman paints his.
The Past is a Grotesque Animal, by Max Kauffman

Everyone’s got a theory on how our civilization will end. Max Kauffman paints his, creating post-apocalyptic folk tales on canvas.

Kauffman’s method of choice is watercolor—a medium that has seen a resurgence in the contemporary art world due to its imperfect, human hand quality. Since he began painting seven years ago, Kauffman has shown his work in Canada, Israel, and Italy, and this year he’s been touted as “the artist that is one to watch”—a label he finds “hilarious.” Besides the apocalypse and the downfall of our society, Kauffman draws inspiration from his childhood dreams, music, the dichotomy between the urban and bucolic and South American folk art. His paintings sometimes come across as uber-hipster but there’s no denying the charming quality to them. Hence, his rising prominence.


Motherboard caught up with Kauffman recently to discuss his work, how he thinks the world will end, and the future of art.

Why paint the end of civilization?

Well, civilizations and empires inevitably end—I enjoy showing death and the cyclic nature of the world in a beautiful manner. That something crumbling/falling apart can lead to new life. I like exploring those segues between the two—new growth coming from something on its way out.

Is this idea of rebirth why all your paintings have a dirty quality to them? The brown could be either earth or garbage.

Yeah, I think of it as weathering/rust/decay and abstract floral growth. Different delineations of nature taking back its turf. I’ve gotten to that palette over the last few years—with the brown and black areas throughout the work, the really sparse colors end up popping harder than if they were more widespread.

As the Waves Crash Down, by Max Kauffman

How do you think our civilization will end? 

In a Terry Gilliam fashion.

So, with a biological virus like in 12 Monkeys?

Virus or maybe more of the crushing government like in Brazil.

What is with the cassette tapes in your work?

The cassette tapes are to me an archeological marker. It’s a totem of music and an artifact from my generation. With people largely not around in my work, I think it’s a bit of a human presence too. I like having them as 'ghosts' in my work now—they used to be much more present a few years ago but they’ve sort of fallen back. Music is a huge huge influence in what I’m doing/how I’m thinking in terms of creating paintings, so that's a little homage to that as well.


You’ve become known for putting folktales in your paintings… can you tell me one?

Yeah, I like to put in little things but they are all really vague and semi-personal. Mostly that idea of visual storytelling is there—a setup for something like an abandoned home or worship place that has the start of a presence forming within it. The seeds of a story rather than a direct narration—I enjoy it much more when people find their own stories within, takes on further importance that way …

Leave Us, by Max Kauffman

What's the deal with Neu Folk Revival, a group show you curated in Oakland?

Neu Folk is a collection of people all working within the realms of 'folk art.' This means a lot of different things for each of them—it’s stuff done by hand, stuff that is process-based, and stuff that tells stories visually. Ultimately it’s a collection of artists working in a traditional manner in line with art that’s been done since the dawn of civilization.

Divergent Evolution, by Max Kauffman

Is this a reaction to our increasingly digital society?

For me and my work, there is a reaction to the digitization of everything.  As we move further and further into the embrace of technology, things done with a human touch will continue to have an effect on those that pay attention, that want something not as … produced.