Keith Mayerson, Maldoror Rimbaud, 2001 Oil on linen (in two parts), 36 x 30 inches Courtesy of the artist
Interview with Keith Mayerson by Tingting Wei
In 2009 when I was a freshman at NYU, my painting instructor never failed to see more in my pieces than I did myself. This instructor was Keith Mayerson: a painter, comic artist, designer, professor, and curator who, since young, has been fond of both Marvel Comics and Mark Rothko, taking all art at face value. Many of his pieces center around his life experiences while simultaneously referencing contemporary socio-political issues. His work appears malleable and fluid, allowing elements of various disciplines or areas of interest to inform each other.
Painting remains one of Keith's predominant mediums, and his stylistic manners have evolved from 80's punk into a kind of sensual realism—an uncontrived "style" achieved by attempting perfect mimesis and inevitably failing, thus allowing the limits of the human hand to reveal themselves. His paintings are rich, "precious and jewel-like", containing remnants of earlier neo-expressionistic influences. Starting in the 90's he experimented with painting as installation, employing tactics of light, movement, and space to play with the simulacrum quality of our day-to-day living. Keith has also actively worked with gay politics—both with loud pieces like Pinocchio as a Fag (1993) and quieter pieces like Our Wedding, July 22, 2008, Meadbrook, CA (2010) depicting his marriage to his partner.
His attention to detail pushes his artwork onto a level bordering obsession. Employing a tactic he calls "micromanagement," in which each stroke is a deliberate compositional element in the picture frame, Keith's paintings retain our attention up close. Keith firmly believes that "smart artists are the ones that win," and he practices what he preaches. His paintings are full of references, including subtle nods at artists like Jasper Johns, Picasso, Kandinsky, Tim Burton and even Paul McCarthy-esque abjection. He also often appropriates Greek myths like Europa, western fairy tails like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, creationism stories, and Japanese manga. All manners of social and political events also work their way into his pieces. His works through the years infer a very personal narrative, and in this interview he shares much of his beliefs and influences.
Keith Mayerson, River and Keanu as Mike & Scott in My Own Private Idaho, 2006 Oil on linen, 40 x 58 inches Courtesy of the artist
Tingting Wei: As your former student, I know a little about your childhood interest in cartoons and illustration—how have these interests shaped your artistic vision?
Keith Mayerson: I can't help, in many ways, to think of my work narratively—whenever I make a painting, I think about what work would "make sense" next...I describe myself as an "installation artist who works with paintings". Each of my shows is like a book on the wall, with each image complementing the other in a sequence that sometimes is more linear, but often times non-linear poetic-prose like series of paintings that together constitute an over-arching idea and conceptual theme. Hopefully each work stands on its own in terms of allegorical content and formal complexity, but like pearls on a string or pieces of a locket, once together they constitute a larger narrative, like panels in an alter piece or a stain-glassed window.
Keith Mayerson, King Kong, Courtesy of the artist
Wei: Have you ever felt pressure to work outside of the drawing or painting mediums? Growing up amongst the hype of installations (video, sculptural forms, etc.), did you ever feel like painting lost competitive power as an artistic means of expression?
Mayerson: I love comics, and as you mentioned, have been creating them and images for reproduction since I was a child. I have had a graphic novel published (that will be republished this summer by HarperPerennial), and have always enjoyed works that can breach past the ivory-tower existence of the fine art world and speak to "the people". I hope to do more of this, and have also made videos, sculptures, etc. (and am working on a project interviewing fellow artists that will soon be part of a show I'm curating and online). Painting has been around for thousands of years and will continue to be important. Through post-modernity and the latter half of the 20th Century other mediums have come into prominence as well, which is healthy. Painting is just one of many mediums now, but I love "specializing" in it (and drawing too), they give me pleasure to create and are ultimate a part of a conceptual vision, which I just described. Painting and drawing are different mediums in that they can be created by the hand and mind of the artist that make nuanced gestures from both the conscious and unconscious via a motor-related activity of the body in motion, which has its own significance and power which I do find allegiance to and appreciate.
Wei: Your works are almost always well done, expressive, and beautiful. Do you see these as necessary qualities for art?
Mayerson: Thanks for the nice compliment! I think that "form fits the function" of contemporary art, and its most important that ideas are interestingly brought up aesthetically via the form that they require. I also think that form sometimes supersedes content, or is so embedded in the ultimate meaning of the work it is difficult to deny, and if beauty can be a seductive agent to get a viewer to ingratiate themselves with the ideas of the work, why deny it? Part of the edifying nature of art is about contemplation, and I seek to make works that are wonderful to look at, and hopefully, think about.
Keith Mayerson, Pinnochio and Casper, 1993, mixed media 22 x 30 inches Courtesy of the artist
Wei: You have a manifesto titled Neo-Integrity which—if I remember correctly—is a response to our current dilemma of post-postmodernism defined by a society bored of both melodrama and irony. How does Neo-Integrity seek to address this cultural jadedness?
Mayerson: Well, I'm not sure it about this, or at least, just about this. When I was younger and just out of college, I saw my first Mike Kelley show of stuffed animals on blankets. I thought they were great, as it was as if Duchamp became "warm", with emotions, aesthetics, and the ineffable had caught up with the readymade. I thought, in the halcyon days of my youth, it would be great to "start" an art movement, and years later, wrote a manifesto that comprised some ideas that were important to me. Ultimately, it may be hard to define, but importantly, it was about art not just being a commodity, that it was about ideas and the agency of the artist to have ideas that people could also think about and contemplate, but also notions of transcendence and the ineffable--the "soul" of the work, brought about by that of the artist and viewer, reminding us that we are sentient creatures that are alive and have responsibility to ourselves and the earth.
Wei: All of your paintings seem so deliberate and personal, I can't help but wonder what your thoughts are on artists (Jeff Koons, Murakami, etc.) who do very little hands-on work? Do you believe artistic intention or authorship are still arguments worth having?
Mayerson: The great thing about the artworld now is there is no prevalent "isms" and that there are many different practices and ideologies that have currency. For me, as a painter who is also the son of a psychoanalyst, I believe in the power of the mind and unconscious to be able to create works by the artists hand that couldn't be replicated by another person or assistant. However, works throughout history have been created by teams of people to all sorts of different degrees. I love many of the works created by artists (and architects, musicians, and filmmakers) that the artistic eye of the creator oversees many aspects of production by others, and/or collaborative efforts by teams. Ultimately, the work needs to stand on its own accord, the author and/or authorship need not be known or prevalent in a work to give it its power.
Keith Mayerson, America, 2010 Oil on linen, 44 x 70 inches Courtesy of the artist
Wei: Again as a former student, I remember your immense love for knowledge—for history, for day-to-day news, for political happenings, etc. How well-informed do you believe an artist should be? Should the artwork always be a reflection of the socio-political climate in which the artist exists?
Mayerson: I always say that "smart artists are the ones that win", and believe this to be true. I don't think this necessarily means that a great artist needs to keep up with current events or politics, or be well-read or versed in art history, etc. But I do think most works are created by making choices that are idea-based, choosing to make a mark or a move that creates visual arguments that describe or are imbued by conceptual ideas and instincts. Thinking is an important part of this, and whether its DeKooning making decisions on how, in micro-managed ways, one brush stroke coincides with another, or David Hammons creating a completely conceptual piece that could have socio-political relevance, or Louise Bourgeois being meditative about her family when making a drawing or sculpture is being self-aware and mindful about the choices they make, creating works that are motivated and therefore complex in both their form and content.
Wei: As a teacher as well as an artist, what do you believe is the value of having skill? Should student still aspire to become good draftsmans?
Mayerson: Again, its about "form fitting function". There have been whole movements of "DIY" kinds of works, or conceptual works like Duchamp's urinal, that don't necessarily involve craftsmanship or technical skill (although of course thinking, and "having an eye" for aesthetics, etc., help!). Personally, I do think that sometimes how a work is formally created, and the integrity of its structure, allow it to physically stand the test of time, as well as invite more time in its contemplation, and enjoy challenging myself to be as "great" of a renderer as possible.
Wei: How important do you think it is for an artist to follow their gut instinct when making a piece of work? Should the process be more intentional and pre-meditated, or should it be more of an obsessive release?
Mayerson: I don't think one should just "put their brains in a bag" when making work. I do think being mindful and thinking about ideas is important, and that art should "be about something" even if this is ultimately about synaesthetic feeling or the ineffable (as in the case with abstraction, etc.). I do think that "smart art" is self-aware about how it operates in a larger context of culture, the world, and art history, and even "outsider art" is an expression of an artists ideas and feelings. I do think that, especially with painting and drawing, its super important to trust your instincts, though. Your instinct is your mind working faster sometimes than you can cognitize, like dreaming, and sometimes the "right side" of your brain can make moves that the "left side" can't do (especially in terms of aesthetic thinking). So both are important--thinking about a work and what it "means", but also trusting your instincts to help guide you through a creation of a work as an analytical meditation.
New York Gallery, Street View
Wei: Much of your work is autobiographical and/or intimate. Do you believe it's possible for an artist to separate his or her life from his or her art?
Mayerson: I think you can't "separate" your ideas and consciousness from a work while you are creating it—whether it be an emotionally expressive piece or cool and conceptual, it is still born from the artist. However, once it is out in the world, hopefully it has a "life of its own", and its meaning and the experience by the viewer reaches far beyond, and perhaps supersedes, the artist, who they are and their biography. The work itself is the most important.
Keith Mayerson, Peanuts, Courtesy of the artist
Wei: What are your thoughts on the market? Especially from the standpoint of being a college professor, how much should a student be informed about the contemporary art world?
Mayerson: We live in a Capitalist society, and the art market is the river in which works of art travel to be seen and heard to larger audiences. Ultimately, the job of the artist is to express themselves, and whether this means doing this for an audience of one in the privacy of your home, or getting it out to the public is up to the artist to decide and value. I do think its important that students know they can become whatever it means to be a "professional artist", and having access to information about how the system works enables and educates students to how to approach getting their work out there. Also, and importantly, the market--in part--has helped to shape ideas and art history--most of the works that are discussed and are part of the discourse have been works that have been exposed to the world because they have been bought, sold, discovered, and traded by collectors, curators, museums, etc., and students need to know the politics that surround this as they can be critical and thoughtful about how art discourses are formed. "Cream rises to the top", I always like to say, in that great works truly are excellent for everything that hasn't to do with commodity, however, the art market is an important component to the larger world of art and art history.
Tingting Wei is a sophomore at Steinhardt, NYU majoring in Studio Art. She's currently interning for Carson Chan and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga at the non-profit project space PROGRAM in Berlin.
Whitehot Magazine's Berlin Editor, Ana Finel Honigman, is pleased present a series of reviews and interviews by studio art students of the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The students are spending a semester abroad in Berlin and contributing to Ana Finel Honigman’s contemporary art course “Intro to Reality: Art World Institutions in Context.” The articles are written as part of Ms. Finel Honigman’s class and selected for publication based on their excellence.view all articles from this author