“I did many pieces with warrior themes, of people put in difficult circumstances and overcoming them anyway,” said South Side artist and casual war history buff Max Sansing of the works exhibited in his latest show, “Good Looking Out,” which opened at Bronzeville’s SteeleLife Gallery on March 30. “My favorite piece is the one of a black Civil War Union soldier. These soldiers had to be resolved and get through it, even though it was contradictory for them to be fighting for a country that didn’t see them as free and equal.”
Though race is a familiar theme in Sansing’s work, the pieces in “Good Looking Out” adhere better to the broader issue Sansing terms “the duality of oneself.” For example, another one of Sansing’s race-themed pieces was inspired by the challenges a friend’s half-Japanese, half-Korean mother faced growing up in Japan. But instead of depicting this conflict as a struggle between an individual and her society, Sansing put complete focus on the individual, painting two identical Asian girls in different tones.
Sansing exhibits many comparable dualities, both in his painting and his persona. He first gained notoriety for his artwork through graffiti, starting with his work for the Who Crew in early high school and later moving on to RK Design, a crew composed of himself and a select group of friends he still collaborates with on commissioned murals today. But Sansing didn’t get his start on the street. Under the tutelage of his art teacher mother and artist father, Sansing developed a strong formal drawing background long before he’d ever held a spray can. He took art classes throughout his four years at Kenwood Academy before earning a design degree from the American Art Academy, and continues to study oil painting at Harold Washington College. Whatever anti-establishment views Sansing may have held as a graffiti artist clearly don’t undermine his respect for traditional art forms and artistic training. As Sansing puts it, “I’m not too weird… A lot of kids do more nonrepresentational stuff first and that’s cool, but if they started out with a more formal background I think their work would be a lot more interesting.”
Sansing’s ability to keep his feet on the ground, a rare trait in contemporary artists, probably comes in handy in his work toward broader ends than his own profession – namely, invigorating African-American youth from the South Side. “I’m not going to say I’m pleased with the state they’re in,” Sansing said flatly. “They’re so jaded with all this imagery, from BET and MTV – their world’s kind of small. I want kids to understand art is important.” He listed aesthetic objects such as cars, clothes, and CD covers that surround teenagers in their daily lives. “It all has a basis in art,” Sansing explained animatedly, with a note of exasperation in his voice, as if he had tried unsuccessfully to convey his passion for art many times before.
Sansing’s work in service of Chicago’s younger generation includes the apprenticeship program After School Matters, the Hyde Park Academy mural program, and a graffiti-based mural for the West Side Health Authority. “The kids we get in the programs don’t have art programs in their schools,” said Sansing. “There is the apprenticeship program, but some of the kids are just there for the checks.” Though this reality depresses Sansing somewhat, it does little to discourage him. “Even if only three out of ten kids get something out of it, that’s good enough. The kids see me walking out the door and doing something people my age don’t usually do–real art–something besides basketball or rap. And that gives them a whole different outlook.”
Still, the path isn’t totally clear for Sansing either. “When as I see myself as an artist, I see myself as a muralist,” he said, “but my passion is my canvases. The pinnacle of what I put into art is what I put into my canvases. I want to represent where I come from and what I’m about.” Though “Good Looking Out,” Sansing’s sophomore show, represents an undoubtedly more mature and cohesive effort than his acclaimed opening “beenpaintingmyassoff” in 2005, he feels that his main goal “is to get better–I’m still learning how to oil paint and get my artwork the way that I want it. I don’t care if I’m in school until I’m 30.”