Keith Mayerson has gained international recognition for his paintings and comics. This month, he reaches a career milestone, with an extraordinary painting installation at the Whitney Biennial that coincides with a solo exhibition at Derek Eller Gallery. Keith was kind enough to converse with me about painting, teaching, and how to “get personal” in art practice, in all the best ways.
Keith Mayerson at the Whitney Biennial 2014 (Image: Derek Eller Gallery)
MB: The works you exhibit in the Whitney Biennial represent each series of paintings you exhibited in galleries throughout the last twenty years, such as Hamlet 1999 and Good Leaders, Endangered Species. But of course, each painting is part of a whole. How did you choose what to include and exclude?
KM: I had ideas for one-painting shows, three-painting shows, etc., but also for a large cosmology to be entitled My American Dream. As you know, Michael, I have been teaching at SVA for over sixteen years in their Cartooning and Illustration Dept., and am their “Cartooning Coordinator”, and feel in some ways an avant garde cartoonist. Even though I’ve published a graphic novel with the writer Dennis Cooper long ago in 1986 – and then again more recently, it was republished by Harper Perennial – the bulk of my artistic output is as an artist who makes nonlinear narrative installations of paintings and drawings that hopefully stand on their own for form and content, but also, when juxtaposed purposefully against other images, do tell a larger story.
My American Dream was born out of mostly the last four years of having painted from images I take myself of my own life of my own family and world (loving John and Yoko, post-Beatles, when they wrote and sang about their own lives and it was powerful and emotional enough to relate to others), after a long (I’ve been exhibiting for twenty years now!) career of appropriation (The Beatles, I feel, were the first post-modern band in that they would speak through avatars: they weren’t the Beatles, they were “Sgt. Pepper”; it wasn’t they who were lonely, it was “Eleanor Rigby!”) and abstraction (music without the lyrics, but for me also harnessing emotion and the unconscious in iconic form).
But as I got older, I realized that much of my work, mostly in the last decade, had a lot to do with the theme of My American Dream, and luckily, Stuart Comer, who also wanted to mix old and new, knew that I had success in the past with my salon-style installations, and allowed me to go for it with this super salon. He curated from a large cosmology of works I presented, than I edited from that and so on. Stuart had some terrific ideas for works that were outside the box of the American-only parameters I had been initially thinking of, and I also added some suggestions. In the end, as soon as I found out how much space I had, I worked on the layout, thinking about the narrative and visual flow, the relationships between the works, and the way the viewer might navigate the works and come to their own conclusions of what ultimately of what My American Dream could mean for the Twenty-first century.
Keith Mayerson, "Husbands (Andrew and I)", 2012
MB: According to the Whitney, these paintings unveil a narrative that “focuses simultaneously on subjects drawn from cultural history and the civil rights struggle and from Mayerson’s own life.” What do these cultural figures mean to you? How does your life relate to civil rights struggle?
KM: As a gay man, who is married to my partner of over 22 years, I see that the civil rights movement has helped to forge the place where we are now. While still a struggle, it’s a place where all people can find their agency and live with the freedom to be respected and live how we wish and to create art commenting on our nation and being as individuals within our democracy to make it an even better place.
MB: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. When I look at these paintings, I sense a story of progress. Are you (or your paintings) optimistic?
KM: Definitely. As I get older, I realize that, in the meditation of painting, I want to create images that give me optimism and hope. During the contentious Bush years, when many of these works were created, rather than “Bush is bad” works I could have done, I rather wanted to make works that provided positive questions and contemplations of where we could go based on great people, scenes, and things that inspired our country to be great for me the artist, but also for my viewers, to help inspire where we can go as a country and peoples.
MB: Despite your attention to narrative, a concentric-circle abstract painting beams like a sun among your imagery in the Biennial. Is this abstract painting a departure from narrative?
KM: Some works from my first 10 years as an exhibiting artist also made it into the mix, which the Iconscapes, as I call them, are a part of. As a son of a psychoanalyst, I have a penchant for the unconscious, and want my unconscious, which spills out in my brush along with my conscious hand whilst painting, to appear.
Keith Mayerson, "The Dalai Lama Teaching the Diamond Cutter Sutra and Seventy Verses on Emptiness at Radio City Music Hall Oct 14, 2007", 2008
KM (continued): These Iconscapes (which I still create) are meant to essentialize these emotions and, like a dream, iconic images and figures occur; and here, juxtaposed with the representational imagery, [the Iconscapes] provide emotive breaks, like musical interludes between lyrics in a song or opera, of what the narrative might be about, and also show how the representational works may break into abstraction in micromanaged moments, and how the abstract images might harness figurative elements… The large circle Iconscape here is placed above the painting of the Dalai Lama at Radio City Music Hall, as if the lens flares in that painting (along with the mandala-like architecture of Radio City itself), could morph into a form of pulsating light and feeling.
MB: Your current solo exhibition at Derek Eller Gallery is called My American Dream (prologue) and functions as a “first act” for the larger narrative in the Whitney Biennial. However, most of the historical figures you’ve painted did live and die before you. Do you consider them to be ancestral figures, at least “in spirit” or outlook?
Keith Mayerson, "Superman", 2014
KM: Pictures of Superman (in the Eller show, a new work derived from the first Fleischer Brothers version of the iconic hero to coincide with the image in the Whitney I painted over a decade ago from the the first Superman comic strip by Siegel and Schuster), Kermit, Tintin, and more are iconic characters that, like Scott McCloud discusses in his his great book, Understanding Comics, we “suture into” while reading and watching them, having them become our avatars like in a RPG video game as we go on their journey.
Lincoln, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are also for me icons that really lived that we can also suture into and relate to. For me, it’s while painting, to give me hope and inspiration, but also for the viewers, to remind them that what they stood and struggled for is still all-important. -Like in a comic, when the viewer is participant in the creation of the ultimate content of the work when they, in an act McCloud deems “closure”, complete the action of one panel to the next in their mind to go on the journey along with the iconic avatars of a comic story, I hope that the viewer, like myself, can relate to these important figures and scenes that helped to forge the great America we currently live on thanks in part to some of these icons, and to inspire people to continue the struggle to make our country a better place for truth, freedom, justice and the American way….