A Different Kind of Treehouse: Máximo González’s The Collector

Notes from Montalvo

A Different Kind of Treehouse: Máximo González’s The Collector

By Rochelle Spencer November 21, 2017

A series developed in collaboration with Lucas Artist Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center.


Imagine a bright, sunny studio, the exterior surrounded by plants, the interior jostling with the laughter of friends, and drawings of the saddest, grimmest tree you’ve ever seen—broken, beaten, and scrawnier than Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Drawings of this tree (and dozens like it) not only dominate the interior of Máximo González’s studio, but also are at the center of a discussion: Is the tree the most significant image of The Collector, González’s in-progress installation at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, or is it the house?

González is a current artist-in-residence in the Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo, and he has exhibited in more than 40 solo shows and 130 group exhibitions. At Montalvo, González is creating what he describes as his “boldest and most ambitious piece,” one that will eventually feature hundreds of drawings and paintings of trees, and also an actual house. During my visit to his studio, his long-term collaborator, the visual artist and writer Ivan Buenader, and novelist Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, also in residence at Montalvo, disagree about what those trees mean.

Máximo González. Studio shot of The Collector, currently in progress at Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Courtesy of Montalvo Arts Center. Photo: Tina Case

In this work, González’s fictional character, The Collector, travels the world, drawing and painting trees. González envisions placing The Collector’s paintings in the woods surrounding Montalvo, and tucking them inside an empty house—the sort of enchanted cottage that appears in fairytales and folktales. González has been working on this project for six years, has already completed videos of The Collector traveling and painting, and has long-term plans to secure a permit to build a house on Montalvo’s property.

González’s sketches of the completed project, with images of a sparsely furnished house filled with drawing upon drawing of trees, feel wild. Is there something about trees or our own homes that drives us a little crazy? And if The Collector is a meditation on our environments and, maybe, what we leave behind once we’re gone, then what’s more important: trees (our natural environment) or a house (the thing we create)? Buenader insists on it being the latter, but González is certain it’s the trees.

I’m having trouble understanding the forest because of the trees, so I ask González about the trajectory of his work, and how The Collector came to be. It’s clear that the arboreal world has long compelled him—he shares that he has been drawing images of trees, again and again, for years. “Since I was a child, I have been drawing trees. In all of my art, political and conceptual, there has always been an image of a tree.” Buenader, listening, agrees: “He has been drawing trees. But the house is the meaningful element that transforms everything around the tree.”

Máximo González. Studio shot of The Collector, currently in progress at Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Courtesy of Montalvo Arts Center. Photo: Tina Case

Maybe Buenader is right; a house symbolizes security, safety, comfort. Nonetheless, González’s trees are weirdly magnetic. Adding to their intrigue, the 268 drawings and paintings of trees—some made at Montalvo (described in an ABC7 News report as “paintings of trees in various stages of health and decline”)—were stolen from a transport truck on October 30, and a search by the Los Banos Police Department recovered all but 78 of them. Clearly, someone is also fascinated by these trees.

González doesn’t explain The Collector’s own obsession. The Collector often sets up his easel in beautiful, sunny places, but no matter what the conditions of the current atmosphere are, his paintings consistently reveal the trees as having “black branches” and being “leafless things,” laughs Zeynab Joukhadar. “Maybe The Collector is recording our futures—or the trees’ future and our absence from it.”

It’s hard to imagine a world without us, and yet an empty house and the image of dead, decaying trees convey those ideas. The trees’ black branches, set against a white or light gray background, don’t represent growth or an abundant harvest. Instead, they suggest stillness, the way an isolated house embodies silence. Given the quietude of these images, it’s hard to conceptualize all of the different forces at work to bring González’s vision to life. The planned installation has visitors listening to sound works and stories by resident fellows before they reach a house in the woods, which will also become a site for community conversation and workshops about environmental sustainability. The house that Máximo wants to build has faced pragmatic challenges: Montalvo leases its forest trails from Santa Clara County, which must sign off on the project. Montalvo estimates it will take three years to finish the project.

Máximo González. Studio shot of The Collector, currently in progress at Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Courtesy of Montalvo Arts Center. Photo: Tina Case

To build the house, showcase the videos, and develop stories based upon the house and The Collector’s life in the forest involves working with several different personalities, but González says he’s enjoying the process. “I love people, and I love drawing, but to make this project a reality is a lot of work. I have to involve artists, community members, businesses, construction workers, and get local permission for support. A lot of people will have to work together to create the spirit of this piece. I create the concept, but we need the energy of all these people to pull it all together.”

This isn’t the first time González has collaborated with artists and the public. González created Changarrito, an art vending cart, to celebrate artists and protest the official selections for the Arco Madrid 2005 art fair. By his account, Changarrito showcased the work of lesser-seen artists and became a project of social impact.

González explains how The Collector similarly emphasizes the effect of “different elements coming together” and resulting in visual and sensory collage. “I cannot do everything myself...we’re creating an incredible experience to share,” he explains, noting that the residency at Montalvo and the artists he has met here have been a source of inspiration.

Máximo González. Studio shot of The Collector, currently in progress at Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Courtesy of Montalvo Arts Center. Photo: Tina Case

On the surface, a near-empty house surrounded by a forest, and filled with haunted depictions of damaged and dying trees, doesn’t seem to bring people together; it seems to aggravate our feelings of isolation and disrupt our notions of safety and control. Yet that’s the beauty of The Collector’s trees and its proposed house—it allows us to understand and reconcile our solitude. Why are we so unhappy with being alone? The exaggerated bleakness of the images suggests that maybe we should laugh at ourselves for seeing sadness in the world simply because we’re not in it.

The Collector’s loneliness will be tempered by the audio elements that visitors experience as they traverse the forest leading up to the house. The forest will emphasize their solitude, but as visitors walk through while listening to Hersh’s compositions on their earbuds, perhaps they will ask the question, “How did the house end up here, like this?”

Or maybe they will think about the trees.

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The Collector: A Proposal is on view by appointment at Montalvo Arts Center's Project Space in Saratoga, CA through January 1, 2018. Drop into the Montalvo Box Office during business hours to request access or contact lap_news@montalvoarts.org to schedule a visit.

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