For the run of the exhibition, SVA Close Up is highlighting members of the SVA community selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial (March 7 – May 25). This is the eighth and final installment in the series.
BFA Illustration and BFA Cartooning faculty member Keith Mayerson’s floor-to-ceiling installation of paintings is featured prominently in the 2014 Whitney Biennial on the third floor, curated by Stuart Comer. SVA Close Up recently had the following exchange with Mayerson, who discusses his influences, his process and the multitude of ideas foregrounding his practice.
Your work spans the spectrum of cartooning, illustration and traditional painting. Do you think of your work as cross-disciplinary?
I really think of myself in many ways as an avant-garde cartoonist and, as I exhibit in the context of galleries and museums, also as a “fine artist.” But all my exhibitions are non-linear narratives—books or comics on a wall—where I absolutely think about how the juxtaposition of each image together tells a story, that while ultimately open-ended and somewhat ambiguous, relies on Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in his great book Understanding Comics (Tundra, 1993): “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” The larger themes of my narratives, such as my Biennial installation, a non-linear narrative entitled “My American Dream,” are also, like a comic, allegorical, removed from a specific reality like a fairytale, myth or fable, inviting the viewer to relate to it in their own personal way, guided by my images and compositions.
McCloud discusses the power of the gutter—the space between panels—which he calls “closure,” the space where the mind becomes participatory in the ultimate content or meaning of the work. He gives an example of a panel of someone chasing someone with an ax, and in the next panel, the words “Aieeee!” coming out the window. The power of this is that the reader’s mind becomes an accomplice in this murderous act. When the mind is actively working to create content, it means more, it moves you. It’s like how seeing a shadow of a monster in an old horror movie is sometimes scarier than seeing the CGI monster in a new one. Imagination can be more impactful than special effects. I think fine art always involves “closure,” except the “gutter” is the space between the viewer and the work of art, that doesn’t tell you what to think, but hopefully invites you to think for yourself of its ultimate meaning.
I want this for my work too, but I’m always thinking about what image goes next to another and how it ultimately fits into the larger narrative, for the allegorical closure to occur and impact the viewer, much like in a printed comic with panels—it’s just that my paintings (or in some case my drawings) are panels on the wall that constitute a larger story. But for me they are using the language of comics! Historically speaking, Hogarth used to do this, as did Goya, as did stained glass windows, alter pieces and fresco’s on church walls. In the 20th and 21st centuries, this is less common, but I find that hopefully this is the new challenge for viewers to understand, especially since I don’t have recurring characters appear in each individual image—it’s more like avant garde comics, theater or film, where the sequences ask the viewer to think a little more and hopefully by doing so, become more involved.
Can you discuss the role of humor in your work?
Sugar helps the medicine go down, and humor can be a wonderful seductive agent to help people relate to and enjoy art. I’m a populist at heart, and an optimist. Some people are wary of humor in fine art, worried that it may underlie the “seriousness” of their ultimate intent. But I love artists like Calder, who had a sense of whimsy in his work, while also being very serious and formal. There is nothing wrong with humor, even if it’s lighthearted at its base in the meaning of work. There are all kinds of artworks, but I do hope that ultimately my work has weighty and rich ideas—more of a “ha ha…oh!” than a “ha ha,” and move on. But all great comedy has this, which is what makes it great. Why are elephants big, grey and wrinkled? Because if they were small, smooth and white, they would be aspirin! Why is this funny, if it is funny? Because elephants and aspirin don’t go together, and once you juxtapose them, it is funny.
Most humor is derived from two or more things juxtaposed to create the humor—the same is true with art! If you put red next to green—complimentary colors—they vacillate in the viewer’s eye. And, most art has a thesis statement composed of two or more things combined to create an argument. Most postmodern art involves having an idea, which is like an argument you want to get across, and a composition that is the aesthetic formulation of this idea, which also has formal arguments that bring out that thesis statement. Humor is very close to the foundation of what art is, and great humor is also very artful, in that it makes you laugh while also making you think and relate to the world differently.
There are a number of salon-style installations on Stuart Comer’s floor at the Whitney. Can you address the significance of the installation style for your work?
For me, the super salon (there are 42 paintings that are literally floor to ceiling on two walls in the show) is a giant comic composition, posing as a salon style installation! Of course, I also want to relate to the history of how we used to see figurative works hanging salon-style in museums, and how in the very near future, the Met is taking over the famous Marcel Breuer building, which also harkens to the 19th century convention of salon style hanging (along with figurative narrative works!). And I have created “horizontal” installations that have paintings, like horses in a stable, one next to another with space in between, still telling stories, but in a more 20th century format. But I grew up with salon-style posters on my wall (much like, in a more tragic way, Anne Frank wheat-pasted images of high and low culture on her wall, as illustrated in a painting I appropriated from a photo of her room in her family’s hiding place in Amsterdam), to give me hope, and I still live in an apartment with salon-style hangings of my work and the work of others.
But I also think this is an excellent way to create comic compositions that perhaps allow more freedom, in a “vertical” reading, for the viewer’s eyes to flow from one image to another to create meaning. This is one of the biggest “inventions” I hope that I’ve accomplished in the installation (and have done for many super salons in the past), as the museum didn’t understand at first how these weren’t just paintings on a wall. But as I teach in my classes, works specifically designed in their spacing and arrangement, like a maze or waterworks, guide the viewer through the story, no matter in what direction they begin.
How does teaching influence your work?
I love teaching. I think that teaching is an extension of my art and that my art is about teaching! Teaching comics is wonderful. I grew up in Colorado and even though we had at the time a decent art museum, if you like Frederic Remington statues and Native American art (which I do!), my primary access to art was through comics. I was always the “comics guy” on campus and I published a daily strip when I was at Brown University (where I majored in semiotics and studio art). I was always the guy who did the illustrations for the yearbooks, literary magazines and papers through my education. When I moved to New York I thought I would be a New Yorker cartoonist, and that would pay my way to paint and write and direct plays (another passion I pursued in school). But after handing off hundreds of cartoons while also working at an art magazine and soon thereafter, a major blue chip gallery, I realized that fine art, especially in post-modernity, was, like cartoons, bringing up ideas aesthetically, but without the purpose of making people laugh, or having to have the same characters in the same strips, and that perhaps it would give me more freedom.
I also loved to render, especially in oil paint! While I did get to publish a graphic novel, a collaboration with the writer Dennis Cooper, after grad school (it was recently republished by Harper Perennial), my “heart” still belongs to comics, and I enjoy “keeping it real” by teaching comics to students for these many (18?) years, who make work for the world, where fine art is, unfortunately, still for a somewhat rarefied audience.
I still love narrative, figurative narrative allegory and how in comics the “form fits the content,” which is much like the dialogue of fine art, although comics capture time and space on the page while fine art does this on the wall. Importantly, if it has a life of its own, it is all art to me no matter what the context, and I really enjoy helping others help themselves find their voice in their work, which I find incredibly edifying and fulfilling. Seeing the “light bulbs” go on in a student is so gratifying, and so many of them have gone on to great success, that I’m as proud of my teaching as I am of my art career.
How much of the narrative in your work is autobiographical and how much is determined by pop culture and the media?
Truly, most of the work in the installation is deeply personal to me, but also, I hope, relatable and important to others. Another family depicted
in the installation is Dr. Martin Luther King’s, in a painting titled after his famous speech Drum Majors. I created this during the Obama/Clinton debates, and was inspired not only by King, but also by how both Hillary and Barack invoked the legacy of this great civil rights leader. Rosa Parks also appears in the installation, as do Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley and Abraham Lincoln, all people who helped to forge a consciousness and ideology of an American dream where individuals can find and explore their identity and find agency and respect in a world that helped to bring about a place where my husband and I can be happily married after being together for 22 years. Superman, Spiderman, TinTin and Kermit the Frog also appear, as they were not only iconic avatars for myself growing up, but contemporary mythological role models that helped to guide many different folks on good paths through life.
For me, “high” and “low” culture are equally important. Pop culture has influenced me so much, and is able to breach the boundaries of class and race and space and time. But I also love fine art and more eclectic ideas and tastes that perhaps popular culture doesn’t realize it has access to, and I hope to bring this to life for others, too. James Dean is prominent in several paintings—many people don’t know he was gay, or at least “Hollywood Bisexual.” He was sugar-daddied into movies in relationships that were documented and established. But in his sensitivity and genius he wanted to be a great artist on the Mount Olympus of culture, along with Michelangelo and Picasso, which he achieved by being one of the first to give a voice to youth culture, inspiring Elvis to be Elvis and John Lennon to be John Lennon—he perhaps even gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll. As an artist, I hope to do my part to make the world a better place, and as an artist who also teaches, comics, pop culture, the media and my life are all intertwined.
My Family depicts happy children bonding while apparently watching TV. Furthermore, pop culture plays a significant role in your images. How does your work address the
way the “American Dream” is perceived through iconography and ideas fed through media?
I love The Beatles, as they were the first postmodern band: they weren’t The Beatles, they were “Sgt. Pepper.” It wasn’t they who were depressed, it was Eleanor Rigby. For much of my 20-year career, I spoke through avatars. My breakout show 20 years ago was my traveling thesis show from my graduate years at UC Irvine, which was called “Pinocchio the Big Fag,” and was based on a “bad” Cole Porter-like musical I wrote. It had a different “plates” in different “styles” as if my version of the story existed along with the original, but “employed” actors to portray different characters. Lampwick was Keanu Reeves, John Wayne was Geppeto, Jodi Foster was the Blue Fairy, and so on.
way the “American Dream” is perceived through iconography and ideas fed through media?
For McCloud, the idea of the icon—or essentialized comic images such as the “happy face”—are as much a result of power as they are relatable, in that they are simplified to the degree that “anyone” can relate to the image. Although I paint cartoon images, I also paint icons from the real world, with a similar idea in mind: that we can all relate to people in popular culture, and that they can become a meeting ground for relatable themes and allegorical content while also being portraits of those people. They carry weight of what they mean and how they influenced culture. But I also love John Lennon and Yoko Ono post-Beatles, whom I see as post-postmodern artists. They sung about their own lives, but the music was so strong, and the ideas so powerful, everyone could relate to them.
In recent years, I’ve been painting from my own photos. I value having the total autonomy of the image (rather than appropriating pre-existing images), and I find that as I’m very close to the subject matter, something extra slips in as a result of the emotion that spills through the conscious hand and brings out transcendent feelings that may go beyond language. I love Rembrandt, and I value the emotion in his work sometimes more than the subject. I hope that the images I create are talismans that allow my emotions and subconscious to guide my brush as much as my conscious mind.
My Family is from an image of my own family in bed. My great-grandmother, loving TV, gave us our first color television, and my cousin took the picture of my mom, dad, sister and I watching our first color TV on a Sunday in 1970. While painting, I listen to music and audiobooks that help me get inside the heads of my subjects. In this case, I listened to my parents’ record collection on CD. I found that The Sound of Music and West Side Story “worked” the best—I think we must have been watching one of these famous movies, as a collective audience of the family sharing a TV experience, something families do less of these days, unfortunately. Ultimately, I hope, at the end of the installation, this is like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and we are watching the history of our lives unfold before us in the other works, and by extension, the history and future of other families in America and beyond.
Any thoughts you’d like to share about your experience of being in the Whitney Biennial?
“My American Dream” is not only the title for the narrative installation, it is also performative: being in the Biennial is my American dream! Ever since I saw my first Biennial in 1987 when I was in college, I have always wanted to be in it and help to influence others in the way that artists in that show inspired me. I also remember reading Slaves of New York just after college and wanting to come to New York, be an artist, and be in the Biennial—fast forward 25 years and I’m finally in it!
Images from top down: Me in the Proust Room for our 40th Birthdays, 2010, oil on linen, 22 x 30 inches, collection of Irena Hochman; The Abduction of Ganymede (Rescue from an Eagle’s Nest), 2006, oil on linen, 48.5 x 61 inches; Gone with the Schwinn, 2007, oil on linen, 36 x 24 inches, collection of Dan Slavin; Whitney Biennial 2014, installation view 5; The New Yorker, 2010, oil on linen, 24 x 36 inches; Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., 2006, oil on linen, 26.5 x 22 inches, collection of Ellen Schweber; My Family, 2013, oil on linen, 56 x 70 inches. All images courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging.