Featured Works on Exhibition A
Keith Mayerson is a painter and teacher at the School of Visual Arts. We spoke with him about his work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, his personal art collection, teaching Nate Lowman and more.
What has your experience been like with the Whitney Biennial? What exactly is your American Dream?
“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.
Installation view of Keith Mayerson's "My American Dream" in the 2014 Whitney Biennial
Do you think of your work as a narrative of your own life?
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.
How did you begin collecting art?
As an artist you get to trade, and I’m very fortunate to have been able to do this with my famous and “soon to be famous” artists friends. I love seeing their work everyday. The works are so important to me and my husband that if there was a fire, we’d grab the work first (that is…after we saved our pets).
Mayerson's art collection, including works by Catherine Opie, Richard Hawkins, Aura Rosenberg, and Travis Hutchensen
What’s your relationship with Dana Schutz and the other artists who are hanging on your walls?
Dana I came to know in one of the most wonderful ways you can get to know a fellow artist: the first painting she ever bought was one of mine and she subsequently bought even more work before we ended up trading. It is the deepest honor when an artist you respect wants your work and even more so when they actually want to spend their hard-earned money on it!
Like most of the artists I’m friends with, I feel my simpatico with Dana, Ryan Johnson, her husband, and the whole crew of friends they share studio space with. Painters who still use brushes are like the “last of the Jedi knights”. I feel like we are all on the same team.
Mayerson's collection, which includes work by Dana Schutz, Jacob Kassay, and Nicole Eisenman, among others
So you currently teach cartooning and illustration at SVA. What’s your relationship to Superman and Annie Oakley?
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.
Weren’t you Nate Lowman’s teacher?
When Nate walked into my sophomore class, he had that aura, that confidence in the way he carried himself, and his work was so good, that I knew he would be one of those students you know the rest of your life as a colleague and friend, which turned out to be true. After mentoring him during his senior year, he was included in a group show organized by my senior NYC students, which was named “NeoIntegrity” after the art movement I always wanted to start. I have many other students from SVA and Columbia whose careers are about to become big. I’m as proud of that legacy as anything else.
Installation shot of "NeoIntegrity" at Derek Eller Gallery
The “NeoIntegrity” show sounds interesting!
When I curated “NeoIntegrity” in 2007 at Derek Eller Gallery, I sent a out a manifesto—which is also printed in my essay in the Whitney catalog—to all the artists I admired, including my great student N. Dash and some of my terrific SVA comic kids, like Dash Shaw, asking for pieces that weren’t necessarily for sale, but that they loved. Sometimes artists carry around from studio to studio pieces that were key to them, and if they agreed and wanted to be in the show, I had them bring their piece to the gallery and choose where to hang it.
This was before Facebook hit our generation, but the show was a little like that: circles of artistic families. It was really Post-postmodernist—a “have your cake and eat it too” plan—where you can make work that is about something, that has content, that’s smart in that it knows how it relates to a broader culture and art history, but also has room for beauty, transcendence, and emotion.
What projects are you working on next?
“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!