Venice native and great-grandson of architect Richard Neutra takes inspiration from the animal kingdom after finding his own creative path
By Michael Aushenker
Max Neutra had an epiphany one day while waiting for his cappuccino at Toast.
Gazing around the West Hollywood brunch spot, Neutra “saw all these young people and wondered, ‘Don’t they have jobs?’ ‘What are they contributing to the universe?’”
When he turned that question back on himself, Neutra — for ten years an in-house audio-video technician at Warner Music Group — realized he was meant to be an artist.
A decade later, Neutra, whose third C.A.V.E. Gallery show “Only Natural” just opened, finds himself living solely from his art.
“I pinched myself. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to do this for four years.”
Showing alongside “Homecoming,” an exhibit by New York-based artist Shai Dahan, “Only Natural” is alive with the sights and sounds of animals. Yes, sounds, as it wasn’t hard for this former technician to lend his depictions of cicadas an authentic aural component.
“It’s not just about seeing the work but hearing it,” Neutra said.
For one of his 35 acrylic images, the artist originally conjured up a horse with eight nostrils. However, “once I started drawing it, I realized it was a better idea in my head,” he said, so the horse with a fantastic nose evolved into the multi-pronged unicorn in “Reverse Osmosis.”
The splashes and drips on Neutra’s canvases harkens back to heroes Ralph Steadman and Pink Floyd artist Gerald Scarfe. Neutra also singles out counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb and employs color highlights to jazz up monochromatic paintings of old typewriters and film cameras the way Wayne Thiebaud uses otherwise tacky hues to breathe life into inanimate objects.
Beyond C.A.V.E. Gallery, Neutra is no stranger to Venice. When he was born, his parents lived in an apartment across from Sidewalk Café.
At age 7, Neutra’s father relocated the family to an unfinished “three-room shack” in the New Mexico desert.
“I bathed in a round metal tub with water heated on the propane stove. We used kerosene lanterns for light. We had to brave the snow and ice to reach the outhouse,” said Neutra, who soon after lived in Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), “a crazy little coal mining town” in New Mexico, and then Santa Fe.
With the support of wife Laura, his high school sweetheart and fellow Warner Music Group employee, Neutra pursued his art, abandoning not only his day job but also his work as a musician.
The Van Nuys resident did manage to release an album of electronic music, “Automation Addiction,” in 2010. Through connections at Warner, he illustrated the members of Jack White’s band Dead Weather for an album.
Early on in his art, Neutra painted live at punk rock shows and “my work was filled with bulging eyeballs and lots of aggression,” he said.
Now older and not so full of angst, Neutra and his ideas have become more sophisticated. “Sheep’s Clothing” features a Great White profile covered in advertising posters.
“[Advertising is] part of the natural environment, but really it’s affecting us and can even be harmful to our health, our spiritual health,” he said of his shark metaphor.
Ditto the panda in “While Supplies Last” and the cigarette-smoking raccoon in “Old Friends, New Vices.”
Then there are those ubiquitous cartoon bunnies, which started while live painting at the King King in Hollywood. Neutra remembers looking out into the audience at 2 a.m., when “everyone’s drunk, dancing, going nuts,” he said. “I started to think about human beings. We’re so interesting. We’re gonna party right off the cliff into oblivion. We can’t help it; we’re reproducing.”
From that improvised piece came a multitude of rabbits.
“At the end of the night, this woman bought everything,” he recalled. By the next day, she had dropped $2,500, acquiring more of his work plus commissioning two more paintings featuring bunnies.
Said rabbits continue to appear, whether forming a giant skull in “Mutually Assured” or standing atop each other to feed an ice cream cone to another mammal high on Neutra’s usage list: the giraffe.
So at what point do his bunnies cease being a genuine form of artistic expression and become a riff, a cliché, a commodity?
“As long as I paint what I want to paint and I’m genuinely interested in it, that truth and realness will be the common thread that comes through the work,” he said.
Neutra’s rabbits have since appeared in murals on Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard and on Saatchi and Saatchi’s Culver City headquarters.
“What I’m most interested in is how the painting is going to make you feel,” Neutra said, adding that the experiential consideration might be the only trait in common with his architect great-grandfather, famed father of Modernism Richard Neutra.
“When I was younger and more naïve and cocky, I thought being related might open some doors,” Neutra said. However, Richard Neutra’s name and achievements have had “very little impact” on Max Neutra’s career trajectory. What he got was inspiration: “It’s in my blood. If he can do it, I can do it.”
The two never met: Neutra was born in 1978; his great-grandfather died in 1970. However, Neutra gleaned from Richard’s writings that they shared a common artistic philosophy: “I don’t make work to sell,” he said. “I make work to create an experience.”
“Only Natural” runs through Aug. 2 at C.A.V.E. Gallery, 1108 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 450-6960 or visit cavegallery.net.