Michael Maas is a Fallbrook-based painter. Over the past 15 years he’s shown extensively in Southern California, most recently at L2Kontemporary in Chinatown. He has another show this month at Bunny Gunner in Pomona.

Maas is best known for his Alhambra series, over 200 paintings which deploy a common abstract motif — a synthesis of jigsaw puzzle and Islamic art  — in sizes ranging from 12 inches to 12 feet. 

Beside its ability to scale, what’s notable about the Alhambra series is its restless visual energy, the result of a complex game of trompe l’oeil:

— In color, geometry, and repetition the motif draws deeply on Islamic art: in particular, mosaic.

— The forms are often heavily modeled, which depending on the viewing distance can yield visual readings ranging from flat (induced by the optical buzz of the repetitive patterning) to sculptural relief (reinforced by the allusion to mosaic) to alarmingly biomorphic (due to their occasional resemblance to human limbs).

— Most subtle and intriguing of all, across the entire series large to small, the depth depicted by the modeling never exceeds the actual thickness of the physical painting, which supercharges the sculptural reading by never violating the integrity of whatever the 3-D analog of the picture plane is. The result is not just paintings depicting sculpture, but paintings trying to be sculpture.


The Alhambra series has been variously described as “biomorphic abstraction” or (per the series name) “Moorish”.  Why not come right out and call it “Islamic”?

The paintings leading up to Alhambra — especially the Summer series and Winter series — had very strong biomorphic elements which carried over into Alhambra, and which are especially noticeable to people familiar with my earlier work. I do think many of the Alhambras could fit right into a show of Islamic art (any invitations?).

I like the idea of doing this, not just for being a loaded move in a post-9/11 world, but also for saluting Islam’s historic contributions to world culture: in art, in computing.

If you make a Venn diagram of the world’s religions, I like to think of my paintings at their best as falling into that one place where all the circles intersect, being just as Islamic as Buddhist as Christian as…

Did you appropriate the Alhambra motif from a historical work? Or is it your own?

It wasn’t until I had done a dozen or so of the Alhambras that I started being asked about the connection, if any, to Islamic art. At that point I didn’t know what people meant so I started getting books on Islamic art, tile work, and architecture. I immediately felt an affinity for it, and it wasn’t until that time that I came up with the idea of calling them “Alhambra”. Since then I’ve incorporated specific motifs into some of my paintings, such as the geometric background in Alhambra #96. I’ve also incorporated some of the ancient ceramic tile glaze colors used in Islamic tile work into the color combinations of my paintings.

One of the mysteries in visual art is the wide range in generativity of specific visual ideas: some yield a single work before exhaustion; others entire shows; and others still entire careers.  200 paintings in, how’s Alhambra holding up for you?

I feel like there is still a lot more to do. Some of them are composed of just a few simple shapes, maybe against a plain background. But I just completed one with over 1400 little flat shapes aligned in columns, which look like 13 stripes from a distance, but 47 stripes up close. I’m very excited about doing more of these, and couldn’t have anticipated them a couple years ago.

Another mystery: the effect of scale. Some artist’s styles seem wholly immune to it, while others suffer dire fates when pushed too large or small.  What led you to explore scale?

I don’t think it was until after I started working big that I came across an interview with Mark Rothko which put it into words for me, but I’d intuitively realized that viewing a large painting can be a more intimate experience than viewing a small one. With a small painting you’re outside looking in, but a large painting which takes up your field of vision can surround you and take you into it. While my large pieces do different things when viewed from different distances, I do mean for them to be viewed from up close too.

You’ve done work outside Alhambra — how does it relate?

Between 1979 and 1997 I did a couple hundred paintings in a tight realistic style — landscapes, seascapes, sports, portraits, botanicals — and there is certainly something that work has in common with my “mature” work. Since July 1997, when I started the Summer series, most of the 500 or so paintings I’ve done relate to each other on one level or another. Some refer back to previous ones, or incorporate earlier elements or themes. While my intention is always to make each painting able to stand on its own, I’m nevertheless conscious of how the individual pieces make up something bigger. I’ve been able to do exhibits where I presented a whole gallery of interrelated pieces as a single integrated work, and that’s really what I like best.

Any last words?

In 1996 my wife Carmen encouraged me to walk away from a six-figure income in the financial services industry and become a full-time artist, in order to “do something worthwhile” with my life (her words). Ever since then, I basically just work every day whether I know what to do or not, and somehow one thing leads to another and things get done. I don’t try too hard to understand it.

Alhambra #151, 20″x40″, acrylic on wood panel, 2011