Keith Mayerson‘s poignant painting compilation “My American Dream” was originally installed in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and this month Marlborough Chelsea has recreated the massive salon-style painting installation. Last year, Mayerson did an incisive interview with Exhibition A about the project, working with narrative, and the experience of having his work included in the Biennial. Here are some excerpts.
[Image at top: Keith Mayerson, installation in progress at Marlborough Chelsea.]
Exhibition A: What has your experience been like with the Whitney Biennial? What exactly is your American Dream?
Keith Mayerson: “My American Dream” is the title for the narrative of the installation, but it’s 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 a part of it and influence others in the way that the artists in that show inspired me. Showing in galleries to a limited audience has always been a source of some frustration. It’s great to reach a general public this large and to have my voice be heard.
For me, the “super salon”—there are forty-two paintings hung literally floor to ceiling on two walls in the show—is a giant comic composition that’s merely posing as a salon-style installation. The works are partially organized in horizontal installations that have paintings one next to another with space in between, like horses in a stable, that tell stories in more of a 20th Century format. But I grew up with salon-style posters on my wall, I live in an apartment with salon-style hangings of my work and others, and I think it’s an excellent way to create comic compositions that allow the viewer’s eyes to flow more freely from one image to another.
This is one of the biggest achievements I hope I’ve accomplished in the installation. These aren’t just paintings on a wall, but are specifically designed in their spacing and arrangement, like a maze or a waterworks, to guide the viewer through the story, no matter from what direction they begin.
EA: Do you think of your work as a narrative of your own life?
KM: In recent years, I’ve been been painting from my own photos. I value having total autonomy over the image—rather that appropriating pre-existing images—and find that when I’m very close to the subject matter, something extra slips in through the conscious hand and brings out transcendent feelings and emotions that go beyond language.
I’ve spoken through avatars for much of my twenty-year year career. My breakout show was my graduate thesis at UC Irvine, which was called “Pinocchio the Big Fag” and based on a Cole Porter-esque musical I wrote. It had different pieces in different styles, as if my version of the story existed along with the original–except employed actors portrayed different characters; Keanu Reeves was Lampwick, John Wayne was Geppetto, Jodi Foster was the Blue Fairy, and so on.
Though I paint cartoon images, I also paint icons from our real world. We can all relate to people in popular culture, and they can become a meeting ground for relatable themes and allegorical content while also being portraits of those people and carrying the weight of their cultural influence….
Painters who still use brushes are like the “last of the Jedi knights.” I feel like we are all on the same team.
EA: So you currently teach cartooning and illustration at SVA. What’s your relationship to Superman and Annie Oakley?
KM: Though I exhibit in the context of galleries and museums, as a fine artist, I really think of myself in many ways as an avant-garde cartoonist. All my exhibits are non-linear narratives—almost like comics on a wall—where the juxtaposition of images tells an open-ended and somewhat ambiguous story. Since I don’t have recurring characters appear in each individual image, they’re 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. Part of the power of comics is that they use icons, which can be literal figures from culture that people relate to or allegorical models of people.
Superman is a painting appropriated from the very first comic strip that Siegel & Shuster created. I grew up loving Superman, and like many iconic avatars that children suture into, he helped to form a non-religious model of what it takes to be a good person. I feel that post-Warhol, instead of just appropriating comics in a Duchampian mode, it is my job to bring emotion to the image. Like a method-actor, I try to step into the shoes of the characters I’m portraying, to help to bring them to life.
It was really amazing painting Annie Oakley. I always advocate, especially with my cartooning students, for “strong female protagonists,” and Annie was certainly that. Way before Lady Gaga and Madonna, she was internationally known as not only the best sharpshooter of her day—when shooting was a way of life for many—but as a kind, smart, self-educated woman.
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, but I also love fine art and more eclectic ideas and tastes that perhaps popular culture doesn’t realize it has access to. As an artist, I hope to do my part to make the world a better place, and as an artist who also teaches, I hope to bring to bear all the comics, pop culture, and media that are intertwined with my life.
EA: What projects are you working on next?
KM: “My American Dream” at the Whitney is part of a larger cosmology and project that I would love to continue to build upon, and hopefully will be able to travel around to museums and galleries. That would truly be a dream come true!
“Keith Mayerson: My American Dream,” Marlborough Chelsae, New York, NY. October 30 through December 23, 2015.
2014 Whitney Biennial: Curators’ statements, painting links (2014)
The Neointegrity Manifesto (2007)
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