"I like glorifying the common," says Marise Maas of Small Talk. "I often find something that seems 'unimportant' can become more important once you look at it a bit closer”. Throughout her practice Maas has enacted a sort of archaeology of the ordinary, peering into the unexplored and ignored corners of our day to day. Her latest exhibition turns this gaze - as the title suggests - onto small talk; the seemingly banal hum of conversation that soundtracks our lives. “Small talk can be seen as useless and a chore for many,” she says. “I like the banality of it, but also the way it can lead to bigger subjects.”
Importance, Maas seems to suggest, is mostly a matter of attention. In an age in which our attention is constantly being torn in seemingly endless directions, Maas’ practice of active observation and the elevation of the ordinary takes on a meditative quality. In celebrating the moments in between, the stories we tell ourselves and each other to pass the time, she carves out a quiet space amidst the chatter. Entering into this state of expressive freedom is an organic process. “The act of painting is amazing and meditative, as close to a state of freedom that I get,” she says. “Nothing is planned much before I start.” Rather, subjects come to her much like overheard snatches of conversation, apprehended through a practice of intuitive mark-making. “The beginning of a painting is the meditative part and gives a foundation to work from,” she says. “Standing back later on I can often see all sort of possibilities and that's when I'll start working a bit more figuratively, to try and depict something that has caught my attention and fascinated me.”
Her fascination with small talk, Maas suggests, could arise from the solitary nature of her work. “I like to work totally alone without people popping in,” she says. “I'm very good and then quickly very bad at small talk. I reveal too much too soon. Maybe I overcompensate for the fact that I'm often working in solitude, which I love. [It] makes me a bit overexcited when I'm in a social situation.” This excitement and ebullience seem to spill over onto Maas’ canvases, which are lively and gestural. They seem to take on a language all of their own; the language of chatter, always there yet seldom the focus of our attention.
In Small Talk a series of motifs recur like refrains: horses, ropes and ties, rings and circles. Small talk, she seems to suggest, is that which binds us, that which encircles us. “Horses have reoccured in the paintings for years,” Maas says. “I loved them always and all my early drawings were of horses, [they were] probably the first thing I ever drew.” This early fascination has led to a life-long love. “I'll use the horses as stand-ins for people. Horses are easier to draw and better looking I think. Plus people seem to read way too much into it when I'm using human figures.”
Indeed, there is a simplicity of both aesthetic and expression in Maas’ work that refuses over-thinking. Rather, she seems to invite that her work be experienced much as one would its subject matter. “[The title] Small Talk also refers to the fact that I'm not aiming to be too profound in my work. I'm not trying to depict deep and weighty issues.” This idea seems at the core of Small Talk: that it is not in those deep conversations that we really come to know ourselves, but in the everyday, in the asides, the rumours, the anecdotes and the ceaseless flow of information we exchange and the stories we tell each other.
Essay by Kate Britton