How Canadian Artist Maxwell Burnstein is Addressing the Irony of Millennial Culture

Are memes art? They can be.

With his new immersive installation, Irreverent Youth, Toronto-based creative Maxwell N. Burnstein is disrupting the hype of ironic Internet art, exploring meme culture and millennial subtexts through an analog practice. Rather than crafting collages with the copy and paste functions of a computer, Burnstein—the artist behind our May 2017 cover with supermodel Jourdan Dunn—uses an X-acto knife to cut 35mm film photographs of real human beings.

The Art Gallery of Ontario commissioned Burnstein to create Irreverent Youth for their 14th annual AGO Massive, Toronto’s favourite contemporary art party. The theme of this year’s event, Illusion, playfully asks guests to question their surroundings, employing them “to look behind the surface and from new angles to discover the facts… or the fiction.” With Irreverent Youth, Burnstein distorts reality by inviting audiences to “become part of the collages as they enter the installation space in the AGO’s Bailee Court,” he says. “Layers that distinguish a collage are broken free from each other and hung separately in space.”

Scroll down for a sneak peek at the exhibit and our interview with the artist.

What appeals to you about the physical process of collage-making? What do you gain from an analog practice that you might miss when you create art with a computer? 

My practice preserves a traditional collage technique in a progressively digital time. There is a tactile experience that can’t be digitally reproduced. It’s the flaws that characterize the craftsmanship of fine art installations like Irreverent Youth at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which can also capture audience online through digital scanning practices.

How important is illusion in your art? What appeals to you about tricking the human eye?

Collage can break perceived boundaries by creating physical layers in a photograph with an X-acto knife to trick the gazing eye within the negative (removed) space. A fascination with the social sciences in undergrad provided the theory behind the practice of deconstructing single layer forms or rebuilding several images to trick the viewer’s perception.

Do you think that millennial Internet culture is inherently irreverent?

Meme as a tool for communication has added a layer of irony to culture. As a visual language that instantly reacts to trends, it is quickly produced and spread online. Proliferating the digital spaces it was created for means subject matter is continually appropriating in a way that makes it the joke. Digital practices have led to the rise of Instagram artists like @Siduations, @HeyReilly and @FreddieMade who dominate social networks like Instagram.

Can you explain why you chose to incorporate Corn Flakes, Wonder Bread and Coca Cola into your installation? 

Nostalgia is a value promoted by millennial culture in reaffirming their childhood experiences are relevant. The familiarity of these products can permeate the layers of the collage, transcending their own set of values. Irreverent Youth was produced in collaboration with photographer Christopher Sherman, who captured the millennial sensibility with the selected objects and one hundred subjects documented for the series on 35mm film.

Want to see Irreverent Youth IRL at the AGO? Buy tickets to the April 19 event here.