Whitehot Magazine

Ecstatic Edgeworks: Limit Experiences and Fluid Morphologies in the Art of Max Wyse

Max Wyse, Parque Mexico, 2006, acrylic and pastel on plexiglass, 48'' x 48." All photos courtesy Robert Poulin

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, April 2020

Why is it that Veit Stoss’s Annunciation of the Rosary (1517-18) at the St. Lorenz Church in Nuremberg reminds me of a huge Max Wyse on scored plexiglass in the La Peau de l'Ours collection here in Quebec? 

That master of the late Gothic Baroque’s humungous Christmas decoration with its ring of roses girdled by the beads of a giant rosary and featuring none other than God almighty with attendant figures of the Madonna, Gabriel and a further choir of angels is nothing short of a 3d marvel. While it may seem light years removed form the feverish inventions of Max Wyse, it would be wise to remember that this artist, ever the outsider, ever the heretic, makes paintings that are profoundly sculptural in their mien.

Working-in-reverse on his plexiglass grounds as though they were wooden panels made for modelling, this artist incises his forms with the all the compositional wherewithal and technical virtuosity of Stoss -- whose abiding pathos and high emotion mirrors Wyse’s own -- and fellow travellers such as the great Tilman Riemenschneider (circa 1460–1531).

Wyse’s works, while not overtly religious like those altarpieces at Creglingen and Rothenburg, are no less stirring in execution, story and scope. They are interpretable not as Biblical illustrations or secular nightmares but as harrowing invocations of the primordial flux that underlies all experience. They are transliterations of ecstasy, even if otherworldly and often of a volcanic order. The artist lends fulsome voice to this raw anarchic fundament in works that demonstrate a high level of formal invention and a sense of fearlessness when it comes to content that is uncensored and unhindered by the myriad constraints of a shackled life. 

Wyse is arguably a prophet of both the End Times and the human limit-experience understood as what has been called a kind of somaesthetic "edgework". His fervour is undeniable and extreme and he goes to great lengths to stress test the definitional limits of common sense humdrum reality while dilating on high ecstasy in the badlands of his wayward vision.

Certainly, this artist summons limit-experiences from the dank and sticky muck of our embodiment with outstanding perseverance. By limit-experience here, I mean an extreme experience that leads one over the proverbial edge of living into a place above and below mere sensation.

The dark mysticism that resonates at the core of Wyse’s endeavour sets it apart. It can be felt as a powerful somatic and emotional undertow and one that can pull heedless viewers under. It is a radical and profane unveiling that effectively breaks the subject into two: seer and seen, seeing in and seeing as.

Max Wyse, The Little Tavern, 2011, acrylic and pastel on plexiglass, 24'' x 24''

Themes of abolition and abandonment and abomination, uncanniness, fascination, suffering, dementia, and strange poetry -- all abide here in a Malcolm Lowry-like Under the Volcano nightmare morass of ruptured spleens and wholesale deterioration, and a potent language of symbiosis that would have been well-nigh unthinkable a mere generation ago.

Wyse’s work has a particularly fecund teleology and offers a radical take on the underside of the life-world that ties in with the longstanding French tradition of abjection in which thinkers like Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille have all made stellar contributions. Wyse brings together what Bataille saw as "two complete contrasts: and shows they are identical - divine ecstasy and extreme horror” and places them into close juxtaposition. [1]

Michel Foucault’s thought is also relevant here, particularly with respect to "the point of life which lies as close as possible to the impossibility of living, which lies at the limit or the extreme". [2] Wyse seems poised on the precipice where the ability to comprehend experience as an unfragmented whole breaks down. Indeed, Foucault’s obsession with "the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself" is one shared by Wyse. 

In an interview with Duccio Trombadori in 1978, Foucault singles out the concept of the “limit-experience” and cites it as a guiding force of his work. [3] His conception of the limit-experience as a powerful breach in normalcy is developed in books like Madness and Civilization, wherein he dilates on “the power to annihilate”. The limit-experience is like a radical theme in and indelible hallmark of his corpus.

A similar wild and unruly current runs through Wyse’s work. It is his passion for the limit-experience as a potent and influential force that marks his corpus with a defining signature.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explored the role of limit-experiences -- such as "Desire, boredom, confinement, revolt, prayer, sleeplessness...and panic" -- in the constitution of the Other…”[4] This is an exotic and perhaps oceanic experience which unsettles and abides, when "ordinary reality is 'abolished' and something terrifyingly other shines through"[5]

Think not of Romanesque churches but of Mexican pyramids when you explore Wyse’s lava-splattered wonderland. If you were to take Riemenschneider’s altarpieces and overlay the carvings with glyphic renderings of an unknown Aztec artist of the 14th to 16th century such as the famous disk depicting the goddess Coyolxauhqui at the Templo Mayor museum and presto! You have Max Wyse, not a German from a land of deep forests but a Canadian expatriate who hails from a land of plastic factories.

His exotic terrariums harbour dark dreams. Indeed, his nightmare factory runs 24/7. He reminds me of Edward Jessup, the 1970s protagonist in Ken Russell’s Altered States film (and the Chayefsky novel on which it was based) who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states" and participates in an Ayahuasca Ceremony where he meets up with the divine protagonist amanita muscaria, which they aptly call the "First Flower".

Max Wyse, Cabin Fever, 2012, acrylic and pastel on plexiglass, 24'' x 24''

The fluid morphologies laid out in one of Wyse’s lateral arrays usually features humans or xenomorphs – or, more specifically, their body-images – undergoing all manner of exotic transmutations, talismanic embodiments and tantric morphologies, and otherworldly transits.

In fact, subjects are being eviscerated willy-nilly and in extensia in Wyse’s painting world. Therein, human flesh is making room for inhabitation by extraterrestrial intelligences, emissaries from the transneptunian insect world, accepting vegetal encrustation as a second skin and experiencing unholy orders of trans-human decay as embodied blessing ways. 

Embodiment here means chrysalis. It denotes incarnation -- and cerebral annihilation. His fraught cosmos of flowering vegetation, with human epidermis merging with wood grain bearing mineral cysts and all manner of otherworldly warts and scars, serial decapitation and prosthetic enhancement by aliens set free from some 4th dimension and clamouring for hegemony and unilateral control.

I have argued elsewhere that Wyse’s painting universe reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic fiction The Crystal World. In that novel, Dr. Edward Sanders discovers that the jungle through which he is travelling – and the humans he encounters within it – are turning into crystalline entities. This painter’s own journey, like Ballard’s, like Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps before him, is an exotic and hectic transit from the ordinary to the outré and the extrasensory, and is marked by an hallucinatory ethos which betrays the worship and use of the aforementioned psychoactive drugs. 

What I am trying to say is the paintings of the Perpignan-based Wyse possess a Boolean logic that borders on both the fractal and the necromantic and the downright frightening. Wyse possesses an astonishingly hybrid and visionary and irredeemably visceral painting vocabulary with an underlying grid, a Rhizome-like network of synaptic tubers and neuronic filaments right out of the writings of Gilles Deleuze. Tubers that insinuate themselves neuronally en route to wholesale insanity like a rogue strain of treponema pallidum making its stealthy way though the forebrain. This is an Invasion of the Body-Snatchers for our time, an affliction of the human soul here and now.

Max Wyse, A Walled Musician, 2012, acrylic and pastel on plexiglass, 24'' x 24''

Inside Wyse’s paintings, the artist lays out what is happening to human beings forced into haphazard bio-mergers with the animal and plant and mineral kingdoms. Wyse sends the body on a hazardous and unforeseen journey to extraterrestrial realms beyond the compass of Copernicus or the lovely image harvests of the Hubble telescope in the far universe. 

He is like a rogue ethnographer of the semiotic and somatic near and far for whom intuition is simply everything, he marshals an exotic constellation of signs and grafts them onto human flesh in graphic phantasmagoric fashion that transcends even the most transformative of tats.

In Wyse’s art, a host of unlikely anthropomorphs abound. They materialise amid volumetric cacti, mushrooms, tubercular growths, tiny yapping Mexican dogs wearing atypical sombreros, scorpions with stings upraised, tarantulas gone wild in a rough wood grain wilderness, They outfit a truly abject panorama, or should I say pandemonium? These paintings are like Pandora’s boxes opened up vertically and referencing everything from Yves Tanguy’s  Cadaver exquis and Paul McCarthy’s (b. 1945) Man Fucking a Tree to the aforementioned epic altarpieces of Riemenschneider. 

Using plexiglass as support and surface at once, Wyse mirrors his own multiple warped cosmologies as though seen through a glass darkly, segmenting, layering, multiplying, and locking it all in an oxygen-free terrarium. 

As I have argued elsewhere, Mexico – or should I say historical Mesoamerica -- is Wyse’s very own painting homeworld. I mean, that is where he has derived his inspiration these last many years, and on extended sorties there he has incubated in systemic fashion an idea of the lived body as a District 9 for alien inhabitation, transformation and potential transcendence.

Aztec mythology left an indelible impression on Wyse, and specifically the iconography of the Aztec plumed serpent, reigns supreme in his work. Quetzalcoatl was considered preeminent in the pantheon of Aztec gods. Wyse’s wedding of humans and insects has a precedent in Mesoamerican art wherein Quetzalcoatl appears in numerous ancient codices, sculptures and reliefs. His appearance can morph dramatically according to region, era, and context. In sculptures adorning temples throughout ancient Mexico, he was most often depicted as a plumed serpent, although sometimes he possessed human features as well. 

In Wyse’s studio, the floor is littered with coffee-table tomes on herpetology and Precolumbian art and anthropological tomes. Certainly, Aztec thought -- and visual iconography -- has deeply nourished his project. But so, too, psychedelics, herpetology, mythology, and pure painting issues. There is one very louche cosmos in play here, one of Kristevian abjection and cerebral decay; these mind-altered states are resonant of the filthy runnel in which the protagonist of the aforementioned Under the Volcano met his untimely end -- with the dead body of a dog thrown down the ravine afterwards for good measure. Wyse’s figural morphologies have a decidedly surreal, high-voltage Mezcalian and hallucinatory psilocybin-like clarity, difficult to avoid, almost certainly neuronal as well as retinal, and altogether taxing. 

Max Wyse, Bats and Raviolis, 2012, acrylic and pastel on plexiglass, 24'' x 24"

Wyse’s paintings import a lot of imagery from the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec heartland. He seems to be channelling all the demons of the upper air and Aztec ghosts bathed in blood. Images unfurl with stealth and a sense of predestiny, like the alien detaching itself from the cockpit instrumentation in the denouement of the first of the Alien films.

Wyse’s take on the human body image has deliriously rough edges that psychoanalyst Paul Schilder never dreamt of.  His work is predicated on a binary rationale: a hugely subjective painting world and a penchant for amazingly layered compositions, foreground to background and back again.  The interesting thing here is that Wyse does not reference a 1960s psychedelia fever – that would be an exercise in sad nostalgia, after all -- but a rather more ancient and bloodsoaked one, when plumed serpents ruled the world. 

I spoke earlier of amanita muscaria. Well, there is no doubt that Wyse’s eloquent paintings have hallucinogenic qualities built in from their inception. Interestingly, the amateur ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson proposed that the fly agaric was in fact the Soma referenced in the ancient Rig Veda texts of India. His argument has since gained many adherents in the anthropological literature. [6] Indeed, reading Wasson and looking at Wyse’s works are kindred pursuits.

Well, if Wyse is a seasoned ethnographer, he is also capable of embroidering the most fluid morphologies in which the abstract is eaten by the figural and the figural, the abstract. Indeed, it is as though fly agaric has taken on human form and walks, squawks, squats in and stalks Wyse’s paintings like a welcome haunting from the archeopsychic past. WM


1. Cited in The Bataille Reader, edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).  

2. See Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (2005) p. 125

3. Michel Foucault, "The 'Experience Book'," in Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori, trans. R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito [New York: Semiotext(e), 1991], 30–31

4. Jacques Lacan, Ėcrits: A Selection (1997) p. 192

5. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 276

6. In his 1976 survey, Hallucinogens and Culture, anthropologist Peter T. Furst evaluated the evidence for and against the identification of the Fly Agaric mushroom as Vedic Soma, deciding finally in its favour.


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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