When walking through the SoMA district of Downtown San Francisco on a Friday night, it’s impossible to miss the bright, inviting light emanating from Natural High, the current show at First Amendment gallery. From outside, flashes of neon light and bright purple, blues and pinks are a welcome respite to the neighborhood’s dark. And, after a beat of contemplation, it feels only right to step in.
Inspired by the title and feel of Henri Matisse’s painting Le bonheur de vivre, Sacramento-born visual artist Maxwell McMaster created Natural High to give viewers a soothing, peaceful escape from the turbulence of our contemporary landscape. His paintings, although deceptively simple at first glance, boast an attention to detail and technique that produce a profoundly immersive effect—transporting the viewer from the melancholy facts of everyday life into McMaster’s fantastical and colorfully imagined world.
“One of the things [prominent] in my work for a long time has been dealing with my own issues and trying to combat this feeling that I live with, this melancholy,” McMaster says. “The work is meant to bring some optimism to myself and the world in general—because it seems like there’s a lot of bad news everywhere you look.” He wants his paintings to point out reasons to be happy, reasons to be hopeful for the future.
Compassion and optimism, the artist says, are among the things he wants to see more of in the world. And McMaster’s works, ranging from small, pie-box-sized canvases to wall-length murals, infuse the gallery with that contemplative hopefulness at every scale. In his larger pieces like Untitled #1, long gradients and small silhouetted figures evoke dreamy, nostalgic memories of a childhood-like time in a viewer’s life. And his smaller works—like the six paintings in his Window series—play liberally with perspective to skillfully create dimension on an otherwise flat surface, a nice analog to McMaster's goal of providing viewers with new, perhaps more beautiful outlooks on life.
No matter the size, the works in Natural High share arresting colors and simplicity in their number of forms. But the works’ ability to provide an escape from the dark realities of everyday seems to come most powerfully from the paintings’ nostalgic roots. A minimalistic color palette reminiscent of the ’80s and ’90s summons that era’s advertisements—another imaginary time and space.
And playful, reoccurring subject matter—like fluffy clouds or wild flowers—let viewers feel young among a land of giant tulips, iridescent skies and eruptive rainbow streams.
“I think maybe, in terms of the optimism aspect, it’s this thing you feel when you’re a kid. And over time, you learn that the world isn’t quite like that. So, this body of work tries to combat the thing that tells us we can’t be what we want the world to be,” McMaster explains. “It wasn’t always my intention to have such a retro vibe, but I think that the stuff I grew up on, early childhood stuff, definitely comes out in the work.”
For Natural High, McMaster lets go of some of his perfectionism and moves away from the polished process that previously dominated his paintings. That said, his work remains incredibly precise. Tiny figures appear remarkably realistic in their fantasy worlds. And his mastery of gradients, rich solid fills and careful shadowing seamlessly bring dream landscapes to life.
Natural High does a superb job of creating a world where hope, nostalgia and the capacity to dream are in abundance. In our contemporary political and cultural landscape, McMaster’s works depict a beautiful, almost heaven-like place of light and optimism—a refreshing reminder to viewers that worlds like this are worth striving for every day.
'Natural High' is on view at San Francisco's First Amendment gallery through Dec. 14, 2018. Details here.