What do Mickey Mouse, Stormy Daniels, and UFOs have in common? They’re all features of American culture, and they're all subjects of artist Keith Mayerson’s work. His new show at Karma Gallery LA, My American Dream: City of Angels, is an amalgam of the artist's favourite figures and themes; you can expect to see prominent cultural figures, iconic children's cartoon characters and puppets, landscapes, and the cosmos. Like the American Dream itself, the exhibit feels elusive — it evades single-word descriptions and feels highly personal to Mayerson.
If you listen to him share about this exhibit, and his work in general, you'll find that Mayerson is a pensive yet unspoiled artist. Hear him elaborate on his reproductions of photographs, and you'll realise that each micro-brushstroke has meaning and intention behind it; ask him about his penchant for cartoons, and you'll get a fleshed-out response. But he avoids over-intellectualising, which is evident in his painting. There's a simple charm to each one of his works; Mayerson captures our reality and deftly reflects it right back at us without too much pomp and fuss. I had the chance to chat with the artist about his approach, My American Dream, and upcoming projects.
Hi Keith! How are you? What are you up to today?
Maya, I’m doing great, so happy and honoured to be interviewed by you for METAL, thank you! Now that my show at Karma LA is finally up, I’ve finally got a chance to take a deep dive to give notes to the great design team Chips NYC who designed my new website.
I want to take people down a rabbit hole with my work and the 35+ years of my oeuvre, so there are a lot of details!
Tell me a bit about you and your artistic practice. How would you describe your painting style?
Like many artists, I’ve been drawing as long as I have been holding a pencil, and painting since the first weeks of college. I was always, since kindergarten, the comics kid on campus, drawing for the school newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, and more. I didn’t have access to contemporary art until later, but had always been bringing up ideas aesthetically every day, even doing the daily comics strip at Brown University when I was an undergrad. I realised when I worked at an art magazine and a blue-chip gallery after graduation that this was the essential nature of contemporary art, and I wasn’t interested in making people laugh, per se, but having them contemplate while looking (and for me while rendering). Painting is much the same. My style comes naturally based on the imagery that I’m rendering — like a Proust madeleine. I use the photo I’m rendering from as a visual talisman to bring about the memories and emotions it conjures in me, and how it turns out is my style.
Coming from comics, part of my work in exhibitions is how the works talk to one another in conscious juxtapositions. I install my shows like panels in a comic, very strategically, placing paintings in a compositional series, so the space between the pictures is just as important as the paintings themselves. How the viewer creates their own closure of understanding between the images becomes part of the work! In church frescos or in giant murals we are used to putting the parts together to create larger stories, but in galleries and museums, juxtaposed images are less common, but this is a part of my art. Each show takes the viewer on a dream-like journey, like prose poems of images on the wall.
I read that you're the son of a psychoanalyst. Does that background figure in your artistic approach?
Being a son of a psychoanalyst, I have a penchant for the unconscious. I love how Cézanne, in his Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings of a mountain, would use the visual stimuli of what he is regarding as a meditation for his unconscious to map upon his representation of form, light, and colour. Part of the power of cartoons is that we don’t have that much specificity in our memories, and iconic, essentialized representations might signify people we know. If we could project our dreams onto a screen, we might see cartoon smiley faces and identify them as grandpa or ghost like forms. When we point our brush into the future, we consciously are controlling our brush, but the unconscious is also driving our thoughts and movements.
How my own works break down into unconscious, iconic essentialized forms and abstraction is part of what hopefully brings my images to life. They are allegorical scenes and images that have a loaded symbolic power, but also bliss out into transcendent other realms of dream.
I notice that your work often features children's TV characters like Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, Charlie Brown, and so on. What draws you to them?
I come from comics! Comics keep me from getting hit by lighting as fine art is too rarefied of a world, but comics and illustration are for the people. Like George Lucas, I’m a big believer in the ideas of Joseph Campbell, and to paraphrase him, “an artist’s job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress”. Comics, cartoons, illustration do this for the world (and hopefully fine art does this too in its own intrinsic, elevated way).
Some of the great creators of popular art entertainments are Disney, Jim Henson, and Charles Schulz, the creators of Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog and Charlie Brown. They used these avatars of themselves to tell stories that they felt would make the world a better place. These characters act, like Frankenstein monsters after the death of their creator, as an everyman. They enable the viewer to be taken on a journey, successfully entertaining while also creating positive ideologies and understandings of the world. By painting these figures, not only is it a pop culture painting honouring these characters and their creators, but also allegorically, in the scenes and the juxtapositions of these works and others, the viewer could relate to these icons, and suture in with feeling and emotion to create positive emotions and ideas to bring to the world.
By the way, who is your favourite cartoon character and why?
Most recently it has been Kermit the Frog — technically not a cartoon character, but a puppet! I started my professional career with Pinocchio the Big Fag, drawing a puppet in my own allegorical take on this queer spin on a classic tale, and now I’m still painting puppets! Kermit isn’t literally gay, but I believe all the Muppets are queer in their taking into critical question gender roles and fluid performativity. I relate to Kermit as a gay man, who gently tries to lead in a non-patriarchal manner (especially when I was Chair of my Department of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking at USC Roski!), and who must negotiate his own agency in a wild world of challenging egos. Kermit always tries his best, has love in his heart for all others, and wants, along with his cohort, to make the world a better place, just like his creator Jim Henson, one of my big heroes!
You also feature images of influential figures (Donald Trump with Stormy Daniels, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family, Joan Didion in her apartment, etc.). Are there challenges to painting highly reproduced pictures? In your mind, what is the dynamic between photography and painting?
I feel in an age post-Warhol, post-Richter, that if you are painting from photos (which I mostly do) our job is to penetrate the picture plane, go into the world of the image so you can feel it as an artist, so the viewer feels it synesthetically, and it makes it come alive. How my paintings are not like the photo is what is me about them — and how they relate to other works in exhibitions, or my oeuvre also takes them into new realms of meaning.
When in 2017 I painted the Trump & Stormy image, from her MySpace page, especially with the trial and the indictments, I wanted to make a history painting, a Goya-esque Presidential Portrait of this egregious demigod, and it was amazing all the information that was in the image that you might not even see after seeing the photo in reproduction. The words Wicked are repeated in the background behind them as this was Stormy’s adult film production company they were standing in front of to promote her, she has her tongue twisted between her teeth and her powerful hair, like a contemporary Medusa, that so contrasts Trump’s horny grimace. I wanted to paint the watermark to make sure Stormy truly owned the image, and how this photo tells such a story — and hopefully the felony conviction that will help to bring Trump down and lose the forthcoming election — Stormy’s true power, courage, and agency.
Your show at LA's Karma gallery is titled My American Dream: City of Angels. What does the American Dream mean to you?
Since witnessing 9-11 in New York City with my NYU students, I have been creating images of what makes me feel good about America, the American Dreams I have and still hope to achieve, living with my Latino (and part indigenous) husband Andrew Madrid for almost 35 years in [a] peaceful relationship with our families and our country. I’ve been painting pictures of civil rights leaders, progressive icons of culture, the American landscape, and other scenes of family and more that keep me hopeful of what truly can still be said to be great about our country, to keep hope (and democracy!) alive for myself, my family, and viewers of my works. Each new exhibition is a chapter building on the rest, and for 24 years I have been creating this non-linear narrative, each new painting like a new poem in my own personal visual Leaves of Grass.
Aside from the common setting in SoCal, are there other themes that link the works in this exhibit together?
The first room is the scenes of iconic Southern California and its heroes, but like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind looking out his truck at UFOs, Cheech & Chong are looking out their low rider, and the next gallery is a panorama of paintings of National Parks and UFOs! Inspired by the petroglyphs in Sego Canyon, Utah, of ancient astronauts— would be aliens — I wanted to be a history painter of these yet to be debunked photos. But I also wanted to place them next to images some of our great National Parks, including Monument Valley, Joshua Tree, and Rocky Mountain National Park, to remind us of if we don’t take care of our Earth, perhaps this is why the UFOs are here — to take care of it for us. I feel that even conservatives must go to the parks and want their grandchildren to experience them, and therefore open the conversation for clean air and water, which could bring about the need to stop global warming.
Then, coming back into the first gallery, grounding ourselves on this real planet, and reminding viewers of the cultural heroes and landscapes of our current culture, and how we need to all be the Michael Jordans or the Billie Jean Kings or even the Jim Hensons of what we do in order to make our own mark and to keep democracy — and our planet — alive.
I see that most, if not all, of the paintings in this show are oil on linen. What is special to you about this format?
If oil paint was created to make things look more real in the days before photography, perhaps it can also make the artist’s own unconscious, and painterly synesthetic effects as real and palatable — and experiential — as any other medium. Every mark I make, every stroke, is like a thought, a Harry Potter-like pensive as I draw the thought from my mind onto canvas and paper. Painting and drawing are a meditation for me. I live through each of my paintings, they help me as much as I hope they will help the viewers.
What is the importance of the past versus the present in this show?
Manet said that the most powerful tool that painters have are memories, and certainly my ruminations help to illuminate all aspects of my works as I render. Many of these images are culled from photos of the past. But rather than be nostalgic, I’m hoping these serve as history paintings —bringing to the viewer emotions and representations that are symbolic for the acts and the agency of the people and scenes they depict.
Do you have any other projects that you can share with us? What's next for you?
I’ve been working for over a decade (but I keep wonderfully getting shows!) on a James Dean graphic novel for Fantagraphics and hope to finish this soon — Dean is such an incredible LGBTQIA+ figure that changed culture! Also, for Fantagraphics I’m working as the editor on Vol. 2 of our Frank Johnson project — a secret pioneer of American Comics who worked — without telling a soul, not even his wife — on the cosmology and thousands of pages of comics and artworks he created. He might have made the first real comic of original material that we published in the first volume — which got much critical acclaim, leading us to our second (both over 400 pages!). And as a sequel to My American Dream: City of Angels I hope to create the next chapter — My American Dream: The City That Never Sleeps for New York City soon! Thanks so much for the wonderful interview, truly it inspires me to continue to the next chapter!