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.