A transgender journey explored in detailed self-portraiture
"In September of 2018 I legally changed my name to Max Lukas Markwald and began painting myself once a month for a year as a way of documenting my gender transition." So begins the artist statement accompanying Markwald's latest exhibition at BAYarts, titled "Skin."
The show boasts large-scale oil paintings where Markwald showcases "obscured portraits" as a way of "hiding in full view." To accomplish this they are cropped, darkened, or perhaps show only the back of the head. One piece has fabric over the entire face, while another shows only a splay of hairy legs. The details shown are all quite masculine. "Painting a self-portrait series became a way for me to come out professionally," he explains. "I wanted to be male passing in all of the paintings, and obscuring the portrait became a natural way to achieve that."
Exploring gender is something that was sparked in 2018, during his senior year at the University of Akron. "I had a critique with Judy Pfaff, who was preparing for an installation at the Akron Art Museum," says Markwald. He was asked about his favorite painters, which Markwald explained included Michaël Borremans and Egon Schiele. The response from Pfaff surprised him when she exclaimed they were all male painters and Markwald (at that time known as Melissa) needed to think about what it meant to be a female artist. Markwald's response to that was: "I don't want to be a female artist. I just want to be a painter."
And he did continue on painting, but those words lingered in his head. "After my senior show, I did begin thinking about what it meant, but the label didn't feel right. I couldn't recognize myself in the mirror or in pictures. Without words to describe the displacement I felt in my body, I painted a series of androgynous self-portraits." But when he looked at the pieces, he says he didn't recognize himself in them.
So two days after his 25th birthday, he legally changed his name to Max and began the year-long portrait painting journey as he transitioned. And he hopes this body of work can reach others, and broaden horizons. "Growing up I never heard the word 'transgender.' It was confusing to experience gender dysphoria without words to describe it. I hope my work helps normalize the trans experience."
The exhibition is on display until March 6.
Jessica Stockdale is the Marketing Manager at BAYarts.
BAYarts is a cultural arts campus that features education, exhibition and events.