Maximilian Toth Encourages Bad Behavior

Little Beasts, Maximilian Toth’s second solo exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser, is filled with large figurative paintings and drawings of teenagers causing trouble. Rendered in comic-book detail, these tender depictions of suburban antics—jumping chain-link fences, trashing swimming pools, and playground games turned to pushing matches—trade in a coming-of-age currency familiar to fans of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. But where those films chart a discreet course for their protagonists, Toth’s canvases leave their subjects floating in the slack tide of the viewer’s projections. The questions how, what, and when are clearly unanswered despite Toth’s detailed scenes, which sit like chalk on a blackboard. Still one can’t help but assume that something certain is just off the painting’s edge, past all the action, right at the tip of the tongue.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Toth over Instant Messenger about Little Beasts (which closes January 30), his own suburban upbringing, and boys with BB guns. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:

GRAHAM BECK: I’ve spent the morning thinking about your paintings. More than anything else, they cause me to remember my own teenage years. Do they work like that for you?

MAXIMILIAN TOTH: Definitely. I can look back on those years and see things that I wasn’t able to see at the time. That time begins to make more sense, and so certain memories and stories accumulate as a narrative that feeds the decisions I’m making as a person. I’m interested in those loaded memories and stories in my work.

BECK: You were born in New Orleans, but grew up near Concord, Massachusetts. Are your paintings Concord memories and stories?

TOTH: They are. Concord is quite a place. Take a look at the local police blotter.

BECK: “Lost bifocals!” “A suspicious text message!”

TOTH: “Confused woman on roof!” It’s all mundane stuff. On any given week you could find yourself in there.

BECK: It’s a kind of everyday blown up and made significant. That’s not entirely unlike your paintings.

TOTH: Yes, to some extent. I try to find those mundane moments that carry a seed of something bigger. In the show that’s up now, there’s a good amount of action, but its all pretty safe, childhood stuff. There are moments of aggression; sparks of self-definition; the start of things that will become much more significant later.

But the blotter is great. It’s a well-told narrative in a language that captures any event and makes it a squib. It’s like someone who didn’t do a thing all day, but can make it sound like they had an amazing adventure.

BECH: Each piece has a relationship to the idea of “coming of age,” which is a pretty inescapable trope when one’s work focuses on teenagers. I’m suspicious that the boys in a painting like Breaking a Chair in Three Parts (2009) learn things, but the idea of getting past that kind of wanton aggression and individuation might not be something we actually move through. It’s always there, but sublimated into different energies. Put another way: little beasts aren’t about to become butterflies; they’re just going to be big beasts.

TOTH: [LAUGHS] There’s an amazing image in William T. Vollmann’s Butterfly Stories where a butterfly lands on a pool of blood and starts drinking.

It’s true that they will become big beasts, but big beasts (and little ones) have the ability to do beautiful things…. It’s not as dandy and fairy tale as all that. When the stories or fables that we’ve constructed in order to make sense of our lives become too small, we’re forced to molt, to get naked again, until we reorient ourselves and create new myths, stories, moralities that jive with the “new” us.

BECK: And that’s what we’re seeing in Little Beasts? The liminal moments of youth? Carnival, but in the suburbs?

TOTH: Yes, I think so, or it’s what I was trying for. Have you seen this YouTube video of a kid with a BB gun shooting and smashing light bulbs with smiley faces drawn on them?


TOTH: I love that kid (and whoever is supervising him). I love the way he uses the gun. He’s a decent shot, and still young enough not to think twice about walking up and slapping the glass with the barrel. Club, gun: no difference.

BECK: That’s the moment that you’re after in your paintings?

TOTH: Exactly. He’s just figuring out that he’s got this potential. He’s not taking out his aggression. He’s not angry. He just likes the sound and sight of things breaking. Can you get a better image of a kid saying goodbye to childhood?