We had the good fortune of connecting with Maya Mason and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Maya, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
It never occurred to me to do anything else. It all started with my family, who live, breathe, speak, and salivate art. Art was always the underpinning to our life. As a child, I relished fostering my own little universes, and rushed home to paint, write novels in longhand, and experiment with finding new uses for everyday items as raw materials for art. When I went away to college at Brown, I found myself painting in the only space available in my dorm room: my bed. I completed my English major in the first two years, before giving myself over entirely to the study of art. I spent six months studying marble carving in Carrara, Italy, and painting in Florence. I spent one summer in the Bay Area creating sculptures in metal at The Crucible, and another in Mexico City studying the country’s various visual traditions and making a series of paintings. Art has given me access to so many opportunities and new experiences. I had the pleasure of being flown to Germany for a weekend to install a series of paintings, and my hosts introduced me to their life fully and generously, taking me hiking in the mountains as well as to museums and pubs, and throwing a party to unveil the paintings of nude women running, where one guest was a priest! Pursuing a career in art has given my life structure, meaning, and variety.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
In my paintings, I strive to create fresh and engaging visions of female experience that inspire and empower women to defy expectation. My paintings confront an art historical canon overflowing with images of men fighting and women lying nude and impassive, subject to scrutiny and fantasy–and challenge that prescriptive narrative head-on. Most of these images were painted by men who did not care to imbue their subjects with interiority, agency, or visible objectives. Much of the time, I paint women in motion because I see motion as a metaphor for agency. A woman in motion chooses to be in motion; she visibly elects to pursue a goal actively, with palpable intention. A fundamental aspect of my practice is the shared experience I have while collaborating with my female subjects. I strive to paint these women as they want to be seen. It is important to me that every woman I paint is enthusiastic to participate and understands the ideology behind the work to avoid any feelings of misunderstanding, exploitation or objectification; rather, the goal is to depict each woman in a way that makes her feel powerful. To date, I have worked with over fifty women spanning a wide range of body types, ages, races, and emotional states in order to capture women’s experience as broadly as I can in an installation series. I hope this work inspires viewers–especially anyone who has felt marginalized by one’s own body–to embrace their agency and feel empowered.
Since the global unrest of the pandemic, in a new series I have begun cramming the picture plane of each painting with writhing, tangled bodies engaged in a primordial struggle, evoking the tension and fear people now experience when confronted with the unknown of other bodies. Some of these paintings depict gender-fueled exchanges to explore male/female dynamics, referring to works by “old masters” to subvert traditional hierarchies and suggest evolving gender roles. Each painting contains at least one self-portrait, even if it is as anonymous as a hand or a midriff, as if to rewrite my female, 21st century self into these historical narratives. Quoting a Bouguereau painting of two men fighting, Dante and Virgil, I replace the clear victor in the struggle between two brawny males with my own face, viciously sinking my teeth into the neck of my opponent. In another painting, referring to Rubens’s Samson and Delilah, I replace Rubens’s passive Delilah with a self-portrait, arms raised ominously above my head, engaged in more vigorous resistance. In other paintings, I collage my favorite passages from paintings by Caravaggio, Ribera, Géricault, and others, and put them into unexpected combinations that cloud literal narrative but intensify emotion.
My objective in these paintings is not to suggest that women should literally dominate the world and deprive all others of bodily autonomy, but rather to demonstrate the absurdity that it was ever acceptable for one privileged and exclusionary subject position to take precedence over all others, obliterating the expression, thoughts and desires of an entire gender for centuries in the process. A female painter contributing her voice now is a means of compensating for this lost time and untold history. With moments of both humor and gravity in every work, I strive to contribute to discourse about female agency and empowerment by creating vibrant, thought-provoking images of women who are undeniably agents of their own destiny, palpably willing to tackle obstacles and confront the viewer with their ownership over their own nude and un-self-conscious bodies.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I haven’t been to LA since before the pandemic (I’m New York-based), but there is so much I can’t wait to do when I come back to see what’s new in the art scene (and visit my sister Ari–she always thinks of the most interesting things to do!). I’ve been eager to go to galleries like New Image Art, Half Gallery’s new LA location, Night Gallery, and Hauser and Wirth LA. I also look forward to revisiting the Broad, the Hammer, and, of course, the Getty, where I can’t wait to see the newly-acquired Artemisia Gentileschi: one of her four depictions of Lucretia.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
While there are countless people to whom I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude for contributing to my artistic development thus far, such as professors, collectors, and gallerists, here I want to use this section to give a shoutout to my family, who raised me in a house where it felt inevitable that I would become an artist. My mother, Molly Mason, is a sculptor whose work I find sublime from the macro view and equally delightful in the details, with moments of joy rewarding closer examination every time. My father, Thomas Fink, is a painter of whimsical abstract paintings and a poet whose powerful work engages with the unconscious and the linguistic subtleties of psychological and cultural placement and displacement, and who I am fortunate to call my collaborator on two books of poetry, most recently A Pageant for Every Addiction. My sister, Ari Mason, composes and creates music for which she richly layers herself virtuosically playing various instruments and harmonizing with her own vocals. She also uses her remarkable versatility to contribute to scores for television. Growing up surrounded by so much quality art and cultural experience shaped how I see the world and what I want to contribute.