Posts Tagged ‘Derek Eller Gallery’

American Art, American Dream

Friday, March 14th, 2014

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….

He, She, It

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

“In place of a hermeneutics,” wrote Susan Sontag, “We need an erotics of art.”  Sontag’s revolutionary demand against heady criticism, written 50 years ago, might be sated by Hair and Skin at Derek Eller Gallery, a group show curated by gallery director Isaac Lyles.

This invigorating show provides a robust sample – often grotesque – of diverse sexual circuits encompassing individuals, objects, couples, and combinations therein.  And presiding over a grouping of much more recent work are two of the greatest proto-perverts, Louise Bourgeois and Hans Bellmer (whose photos here got him kicked out of Nazi Germany).

Aura Rosenberg at Derek Eller Gallery

Aura Rosenberg’s Capricorn (Suzanne and Gary) captures a print of two artists who pressed onto black velvet their painted white bodies conjoined in a sexual position.  This particular work is part of a series that Aura Rosenberg developed from a classic black-light poster, The Afronomical Ways.

Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska, on the other hand, uses video to plunge deep within – or at least a knuckle deep – to index the holes of her body.  Intermittently, she arranges some of her “choice” parts into a grid, like a menu, from which she can select one to feature.  In one amusing scene, the breasts begin to drift and collide in Brownian motion.

Brownian Breasts: Aneta Grzeszykowska at Derek Eller

Aneta Grzeszykowska is no stranger to images of dismemberment.  Her chilling 2007 video, Black, had a parental advisory when it screened in A Disagreeable Object at Sculpture Center last year.  Both videos, which remind me of Mika Rottenberg’s photos in Jew York, bear a relevance to Lacan’s “mirror stage,” making her work especially compelling in Hair and Skin, a show that considers a different mirror: the mirror neuron.

Isaac Lyles writes, “Mirror neurons, found in the human brain, are the subject of recent research on ‘physical empathy,’ the ability to physically respond to, for example, someone breaking their leg or a couple having sex. The brain actually simulates the experience of what it sees. In other words: ‘What I see, I feel.’”

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He continues, “The work is visceral, it connects to our phenomenal consciousness, speaks to corporeal experience, and the unruliness of desire. The centrality of the body, the means of communicating its vicissitudes, and the effects (physical, emotional) of this communication are the subject of Hair and Skin.

David Dupuis at Derek Eller Gallery

The latter paragraph finds a model in a gorgeous drawing by steadfast draftsman David Dupuis.  Two fit men embrace in a limb-trading bundle.  Modulations of blue colored pencil render muscle and tension, but they also add the illusion of a subcutaneous glow.  Bare white pockets – a shoulder blade, a hip, a hand, ears – transport to paper the experience of sensual saturation, where space and time might dissolve, taking physical boundaries with them.

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Meanwhile, estrangement and effacement are the signals I caught from Daniel Gordon’s dexterous set-up/photo/collage works.  They seem funny when compared to the grave qualities of the haunting drawings by Chloe Piene and Lionel Maunz, or Maunz’ abject and coffin-shaped sculpture made from things we shed, but that might just be from the nip-and-tuck agility of their facture.

Daniel Gordon at Derek Eller Gallery

Hair and Skin makes a strong argument for visceral, boldily-oriented art that calls to and responds to our basic drives.  It’s a tight show that would be easy to expand.  After all, what could be important in art than sex and death?  What better means is there, beyond the body?  And if I am thinking about this show, rather than running from it (or toward it), have I missed an erotic experience?


Northern Lights

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Keith Mayerson just opened his sixth solo show at Derek Eller Gallery.  Titled My American Dream, the show is a narrative series that consolidates Keith’s autobiographical experience with his political and spiritual outlook.  Keith covers marriage, family, New York City, rural America, James Dean, icons, death, the subconscious, storms, and what the mind sees.

Keith is the son of a psychoanalyst, the husband of a professor, a mentor to countless students and artists, and a brilliant painter.  My American Dream is a prismatic album of warm memories, cool observations, inward exploration, and cosmic wonder.  Marriage is a touchstone of Keith’s worldview, as it was for Kierkegaard, who described it as an essential stage in the metamorphosis of a maturing person.  For Keith, it also open ups new social dimensions: the family, the state, the country.  Husband as citizen; citizen as husband.  It is like naturalization for the mind (and heart).

Keith Mayerson, Husbands (Andrew and I), 2012

Husbands (Andrew and I), 2012 is the best window into this show (though Family, 2013 is the best seat). Keith and his real-life husband, Andrew, pose for a #selfie at their home in California, where they married before California passed Prop 8; that is, before church-driven forces spent a fortune to mislead the public into denying Constitutional rights to an unpopular minority. Times are better now. Since the show opened, two more U.S. states have passed marriage equality and one embraced civil unions. But more central to the painting, which Keith has described as his own private Jewish Bride, is how its beatific religiosity overpowers the secular topic. Keith and Andrew look graceful and splendid in a bond that no zealot, storm, nor communist menace could tear asunder.  A light that never goes out falls centrally upon them, the spectrally striated sky behind them seems to roil with volcanic murmurs, colors shift and shimmer, and space appears to rush toward us as Keith-Andrew hurtle across the universe.

From Keith's previous show: Our Wedding, July 22, 2008, Meadbrook, CA, 2010

That cosmic awareness makes an experience that is almost out-of-body in View from our Chelsea Window, 2012. The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes, and in this painting, it’s like waking up really late or really early.  Historical uncertainty.  An American flag, clewed up, halfway, like a rising eyelid, reveals a golden street scene. One could pause to admire how the vertical buildings outside square off with the horizontal window frame and will, or one could move on and consider the purple and intimate private space inside sheltered from the brassy public space outside.  And then we learn that on July 4th, Keith and Andrew layed in bed to watch the Independence Day fireworks outside their window, which actually does have an American flag as a window dressing. Two joined souls are sharing a bed, contemplating the long history that made this moment possible; they share a bed and a consciousness, looking together through one eye.

Keith Mayerson, View from our Chelsea Window, 2012

A theme that precedes the topics listed above is commitment, which is an ethical choice.  Most of the paintings in this show depict behavior and activity that require commitment.  Marriage is an obvious example.  Family, too.  Surviving in NYC is a commitment.  Painting is definitely a commitment.  Insistently looking inward is a commitment.  Researching James Dean could be a commitment, but it strikes me as obsession, which is a relative of commitment, but possibly younger.

Keith Mayerson Family, 2013

Unplugged, Rebooted

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Unplugged, Rebooted

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.

Unplugged, Rebooted

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.

Unplugged, Rebooted

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.

Hearts Beating Together

Unplugged, Rebooted

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.

Unplugged, Rebooted

Unplugged, Rebooted

Unplugged, Rebooted

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?

Are You Amplified to Rock? Yes.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

From the opening of Keith Mayerson’s Horror Hospital Unplugged original art at Derek Eller Gallery:

Keith Mayerson peace-out


More on this later!