L.A.-based Czech artist Maxim Havlíček comes full circle with “The Alchemist” exhibition

Maxim Havlíček

Twenty years ago, Czech artist, graphic designer and musician Maxim Havlíček left for San Francisco with 200 dollars in his pocket and the deep-felt conviction that his destiny lay abroad; that his desire to explore – and paint – could not be truly fulfilled unless he left his homeland, perhaps forever. His reading of the Paulo Coelho novel The Alchemist proved the catalyst for that continuing artistic journey, and so Havlíček has borrowed the title for his upcoming exhibition in Prague.

Maxim Havlíček | Photo: Jiří Němec,  Radio Prague International
The main theme of The Alchemist is finding one’s destiny. The novel follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy who is told by an ageing king that “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true”. That hit home for Maxim Havlíček, who two decades ago set out for the United States, convinced that his own destiny, too, involved such a journey.

“I was given this book, The Alchemist, and I was told it was a great story and ‘Really, this is the book for you – You’ve got to read it.’ And so I opened it up, started reading – and I read it in one day. It was like a revelation or really a confirmation of everything I’d been thinking. Everything. And I know it might sound naïve, but that was the last piece that fit the puzzle, perfectly, to tell me, to confirm everything for me. Saying, ‘Okay, you really have to go.’ Whatever happens, happens. I knew. So that was it. I bought a ticket to San Francisco, the cheapest I could find.”

“My friends lived in Pacifica, which is south of San Francisco, just a block from the beach. I remember they picked me up at the airport, and we stopped at a pizza place, took out a big pizza to go, and went to the beach. We ate pizza, smoked a huge doobie. And I could not believe I was in the States. It was so surreal – but it felt so right. I don’t know. You can probably get close to feeling like that when you fall in love. It’s really, really powerful. And I knew this was it.”

When the Velvet Revolution came, Maxim was a freshman at the Prague graphic design school known as “Hellichovka”. He worked in the field for a few years after graduating, when advertising agencies were popping up like mushrooms to meet demand in the 1990s, all the while experimenting with his first love, calligraphy.

The Alchemist Collection,  photo: archive of Maxim Havlíček
He had also played in a few bands, one of which cut an album, and enjoyed the newfound freedoms after the collapse of communism. He travelled and even lived in a squat in Germany for some time. But for someone “with a restless nature” and a love for maps ever since childhood, extended holidays would never be enough.

Again, it was Coelho’s The Alchemist which confirmed that sense for him, and which so aptly fits as a name for his dimensional, heavily textured large-scale paintings, many featuring calligraphy, and which he says are a symbolic “book” of his confessions, reflecting the knowledge that each of us is responsible for their own life stories.

“So what happens in the book, you set out on a journey to look for something, only to find out that what you were looking for has been with you the whole time. And it’s not about a place or a person; it’s just to fulfil your story. For some it’s their fate, for some it’s their calling. It’s just your life. That’s what it is. So, I’m coming back after 20 years with the product of what I set out to do.”

“Right away, when we figured out the details about the exhibit here in Prague, I knew that the name of it had to be ‘The Alchemist’. I’m also a huge fan and an avid reader of science. I love science, everything about the universe – cosmology, quantum physics, quantum mechanics, the teachings of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, and now I’m reading a biography of Albert Einstein. I love that stuff. And alchemy – in the medieval times and a little later, when they were trying to make sense of science through doing ‘magic’ and Prague was the centre of alchemy back in the day. So, it all comes together, makes perfect sense, ties together. And because I’m back here, and I’m coming back with the treasure that I’ve found on the way, during those 20 years.”

A treasure within, that’s now on the canvas…

“Yeah, yeah – the expression of that, of all that. Everything is on the canvas.”

Tell me about your artistic development over those twenty years….

“The artistic development over the last twenty years… When I came to the States, my priorities were a little bit different because it was about survival and learning how to live in a new country – not only the country but culture, everything. So, I had to postpone that a little bit. But then when I got my feet firmly on the ground, first off, I started with music. Because that’s the easiest, the most approachable, and consumable, too.”

And what’s your main instrument?

The Alchemist Collection,  photo: archive of Maxim Havlíček
“Guitar. But, actually, I started playing the drums in Chicago and I played for a while with a band in Chicago. And I love playing the drums because it kind of fits my personality. And then I did some photography in Chicago and was working with a really famous photographer, doing some digital design, dabbling in digital media art. I used my friend’s photograph and would enhance it – not enhance it but manipulate it – using the computer to make it more surreal. But there was too much in between me and the final product. The computer, digital data, everything… But I finally went back to what I really wanted to do, which is to paint. That was when I moved to Los Angeles, eight years ago. I got my first real studio and started painting, started stretching my own canvases. I’ve been painting ever since. That’s what I wanted to do. That wasn’t just experimentation.”

And from what I understand, you paint not so much with a brush, but like getting your hands dirty…

“Correct. I rarely use brushes. Texture plays a big role in my paintings, and I’m using different techniques that, actually, I developed and created myself. I took a good six, seven months experimenting – I knew what I wanted to achieve; I had this idea in my head – but I had to go about it in a way that you can’t really ‘google’. I was experimenting with different materials. I ruined multiple canvases trying to figure out a way that I could actually work with it because sometimes it would dry too quickly, sometimes it wouldn’t be mouldable enough, sometimes it just didn’t stick to it.”

“So, then I went back to the drawing board. I went back to what I learned in school, I did some research and started combining some old techniques from the Renaissance and the classical painters and using their techniques – because I knew that worked – and tried to combine it with something new. So, I was adding different materials, modern materials like polymers and silicons into that, mixing with the classic materials, like marble dust. But I don’t want to get into it that much because it’s kind of my secret, I’d say.”

You’ve also come full circle, in a sense, by incorporating calligraphy.

“Correct. And I knew that from the get-go. It’s not only visually. I absolutely love it – the flow of the hand that seamlessly creates these shapes that resemble letters and paragraphs and pages. But it’s also an ancient recording of knowledge. So, I started experimenting with that too. Now it’s almost at the point where it’s almost automatic. And I have an OCD mind, so the speed of the thoughts that come into my mind – I can’t keep up with it. So, I get overwhelmed by it, a lot of times. You’ve probably noticed sometimes I don’t finish my sentences. That’s just how it manifests in some ways.”

The Alchemist Collection,  photo: archive of Maxim Havlíček
“In other ways, I start writing these thoughts on the canvas, but I don’t wait for the thought to finish. I would just start writing as it came. And then I’d start writing the next one, and the next one, and the next one… So, you can’t really read it because it wouldn’t make any sense. But what it really is – every one of them is a recording of my incredibly scrambled – of my thoughts that come to me, and I have no other way of expressing them because my mouth, my vocal abilities are just not there. You know, I can only speak so fast.”

So, your inspiration travels directly through the hand.

“Exactly. Even the hand is not fast enough. But at least I get snippets of it, and I can write some of it down. And I don’t even have to go back to it and try to figure out what I was trying to say because those thoughts – they happen in a moment, and they stay in a moment. And I know that thought is going to be replaced immediately with some other thought, and that’s going to be replaced. So, it’s just this chain of thoughts. So, part of the artistic process is a recording, a diary. Which might be mine and might be coming from someplace else. Sometimes I feel like a funnel.”

Like a conduit?

“A conduit, yeah. That sounds better!”

Maxim Havlíček’s exhibition of 40 large-scale paintings, titled “The Alchemist”, opens on August 11 in Prague and will fill the entire sixth floor of the iconic brutalist Kotva building. It later moves to Vnitroblock and Kavarna co hleda jmeno (“the café in search of a name”), where it will continue through September 18.