Max Jansons at James Graham & Sons

Max Jansons, Santa Monica Airlines (2011), oil on linen, 12″ x 10″; courtesy James Graham & Sons

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You’d be hard-pressed to find paintings sillier than those of Max Jansons, whose recent work is on display at James Graham & Sons.

Saying so isn’t panning the pictures, and not panning the pictures isn’t damning them with faint praise. Freewheelin’ is the exhibition’s title and theme: Jansons’ amalgams of modernist abstraction and folk art contrivance, at once elegant and cloddish, are unapologetically blasé. Eazy Breezy is a title; What’s Not to Love? another.

Jansons doesn’t don a hair shirt when putting brush to canvas. He chooses not to worry about anything quite so grave as Art. Frittering away his time, Jansons enjoys himself.

How much the rest of us will enjoy the paintings depends on our taste for his flaky, off-the-cuff sensibility. Jansons’ dilettante-ish ways point to a constitutional inability to take things seriously, but also to an unmistakable erudition. Locating inspiration in “the beach, the ocean…hippies, surfers and kooks [and] sunny days,” he pursues a funky mix of bourgeois comfort and bohemian caprice. Did I mention Jansons is from California?

Max Jansons, Eazy, Breezy (2011), oil on linen, 26″ x 36″; courtesy James Graham & Sons
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Combining a wan and earthy palette with a touch that doesn’t break a sweat, Jansons flits between a decidedly American brand of abstraction—Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove and Myron Stout are brought to mind—and the lumpish ministrations of a Sunday painter. Vases of flowers and teapots, rendered with cack-handed contouring, are fitted with jutting zigzag patterning. When the work threatens to succumb to a cozy irony, it’s righted by pieces like O.P., Like A Sailor Redux and Yabble Dabble (all 2011), wherein non-representational ends bring much-needed ambiguity to an artist overly pleased by his own dry wit.

Jansons bumbles for real when he settles on the female form. Granted, it was cute—kind of—to render “boobs” as if they were academic exercises in color, shape and space. But there are happier marriages to be made than between the pictorial rigor of Joseph Albers and John Wesley’s brittle essays in cartoon erotica. Dumb is the last thing you want from a painter whose gift is yoking frivolous pleasures from sophisticated fun.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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