Horror Hospital Unplugged is the graphic novel created by artist Keith Mayerson and writer Dennis Cooper. Juno Books published it over ten years ago, and Harper Perennial republished it this year.
The story covers a fledgling Hollywood band and its frontman, Trevor Machine, who in real life might have envied Darby Crash or aged into G.G. Allin. The band, cannily named after an obscure 70s zombie film of 1973, emerges on the zine scene as a queer touchstone and on the glam atlas as the next big thing, attracting even the Geffen Records eponymous Powerman. However, it’s the band’s only straight member who connects Trevor with his tragic love, Tim. Disdained by Trevor’s bandmates as a “clone,” Tim is relatively secure in his sexuality. With this leverage, he challenges Trevor to locate his creative engines and then to admit the indomitable onset of LOVE. Meanwhile, the band’s surge of attention, fueled by a disingenuous collaboration with Courtney Love, and monitored by the ghost of River Phoenix, culminates on the night that Trevor learns the hardest lesson of his short life.
Keith Mayerson handles the tumultous arc by wrangling several species of drawing styles, including hallucinatory symbolism; and effervescent, plastic manga; and syndicated illustration, like a hazy Jack Kirby flashback. No page feels laborious or over-researched; instead, Keith conveys decisive urgency and capitalizes on his existing familiarity with these styles. -Or, as the gallery spins it: “if Antonin Artaud and Keith Haring took the wrong drugs and collaborated on a kids cartoon show.”
Things keep moving. As the story develops, Keith nimbly leaps from panel-based sequence to sprawling splash pages teeming with stream-of-conscious maps and vignettes. He handles a night at The Viper Room, where River Phoenix famously overdosed – in real life and in this story – as a seat-assigned index of celebrities, wherein the stars appear as terriers. A later page, anchored by an all-seeing sun, branches out into a galaxy, with each planet occupied by a cast member.
And Keith brings the inside to the outside. This unusual ability is what pushes his Horror Hospital Unplugged drawings beyond the service-based conventions of illustration and into the limitless anarchy of real art. Keith doesn’t just “show” what happens, he intimates what happens. Principal and peripheral characters morph and transform into horrific beasts, often in tandem with predatorial surges. During the feverish heights of sex and drugs, and through the coupling (and tripling) of warm bodies, Keith’s reductive, permissive curlicues and arabesque contours violently fracture and bleed into streaky, desperate scrawling. Figures dissolve into skeletal cinders, as if life is incompatible with these indulgences. But it’s not pleasure, per se, that annihilates corporeal functionality. For example, the sweet sex scene between Tim and Trevor is cosmic, a flight through zip-a-tone filler into the rabbit-hole sublime. Sex doesn’t equal death; but imbalanced rapacity kills. Chicken hawks kill. Drugging someone kills. Commercialism kills. Pollution kills. Exploitation kills.
The current show at Derek Eller Gallery is an unprecedented opportunity to see Keith’s visionary drawings in the flesh. On varied, provisional sheets of paper and board, the drawings are pinned to the walls, freely accessible and available (or vulnerable) to tactile appeal. We can see Keith’s swift composition with non-photo blue pencil, his correction with masking tape, and the margin notes with which he advises himself. He lets his handiwork freak-flag fly high. This informal preference is terrific, as it matches the lo-fi, punk resistance to preciousness we find in the drawings (and their characters). (WWTMD*?) On the other hand, some drawings are precariously dangling off the wall; one strong autumn wind might send them to the floor. Thus, superficially, they are quite underdressed. More importantly: Keith Mayerson is a great artist. All of his work now demands dignity (and protection), despite any unassuming moments from the past.
Yet, I think the Keith Mayerson of Horror Hospital leaves conservation to conservators. Like rock gods, these drawings were made to live fast. Archival consternation would just slow them down. This show restages the immediate gratification that Keith magically harnessed as a virtue, and we should enjoy that while we can.
*What Would Trevor Machine Do?