Keith Mayerson: My American Dream: City of Angels | Sadamasa Motonaga
7351 Santa Monica Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90046
Thursday, May 23 at 6:00 PM 8:00 PM
Ends Jul 20, 2024
Karma presents My American Dream: City of Angels, an exhibition of new paintings by Keith Mayerson, open from May 23 to July 20 at 7351 Santa Monica Boulevard. Mayerson’s sprawling, non-linear narrative painting series My American Dream (2000– ) weaves hundreds of discrete images from his personal life, popular culture, and the national landscape into a portrait of America as he sees it, full of potentiality. City of Angels, Mayerson’s latest chapter in the series, addresses his personal national imaginary, honing in on Los Angeles, the city where he came into his own as an artist in the 1990s and one that he has, since returning from New York in 2016, once again come to call home. The exhibition’s two rooms—the first an homage to the figures who are central to the artist’s California mythology, the second a meditation on the changing landscape of the American West—together comprise Mayerson’s tribute to the state’s utopian promise. As Roberta Smith has written, each of Mayerson’s works “stands alone as a painted image” even as they are “part of a larger narrative.” City of Angels opens with a room of figurative oil-on-linen paintings, based, as all of Mayerson’s representational works, on photographs. The first depicts tennis legend Billie Jean King, who was born in Long Beach, holding up a trophy after winning Wimbledon in 1975, while the second shows Jim Henson surrounded by Muppets. As a student in Brown University’s semiotics department in the late-1980s, Mayerson learned about the signifying powers of pop-cultural and historical images; in addition to engaging in a postmodern deconstruction of their meanings, his work amounts to a sincere attachment to the emancipation they can represent. In King, he sees a feminist icon, while in the Muppets, who reappear across his oeuvre as a cipher for queerness, he perceives a diverse cast of characters who are celebrated for their deviation from the norm, here represented by Henson’s own human visage. Mickey, My Sister and Me (2023), based on a photo of Mayerson, age six, staring lovingly up at a costumed Mickey Mouse at Disney World in 1971 when it first opened (here, the Florida site is a stand-in for its California counterpart, Disneyland), returns to his childhood vision of Los Angeles as a city where creative individuals could build alternate worlds; its orange-and-blue palette evokes the hazy filter of a 1970s film camera. Cheech and Chong and Skateboarder (both 2023) tap into the city’s ’70s counterculture, disseminated as it was throughout the country and beyond via magazines, posters, and films that promised an alternative bohemian ideology and occasionally homosocial lifestyle. Mayerson’s Southern California landscapes vibrate with intense emotion on the fault line between abstraction and representation. The son of a psychoanalyst, Mayerson is inspired by Surrealist and Modernist allegiances to the unconscious; in his abstractions of nature into visionary scenes, he draws from Symbolism as well as the work of Paul Cézanne, the Hudson River and Taos schools, and other regional American landscape painters. In the over-eight-foot-wide LA from a Plane (2023), he represents a city, as critical theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote in America, that is “in love with its limitless horizontality.” Mayerson’s use of a technique he calls “micro-management,” in which he paints each pixel of the original photograph as if it were a real entity, lends the landscapes a hallucinatory quality. Looking down on the city from above, the viewer is welcomed into its teeming fabric. In Sunset at Seal Rock, Laguna Beach, California (2023), a testament to Mayerson’s love for his husband, whom he first met in the small coastal city, the sky is striated like a slice of agate, each swirling layer of atmosphere a sky unto itself. With Joshua Tree (2024), the darker extremes of the Californian environment are visible: one of the park’s legendary yucca lays on the desert floor, an omen of the threats of climate change. There is hope for the future, however, in this work—newly sprouting yucca dot the horizon. City of Dreams concludes with paintings of famous UFO sightings that construct a science-fiction allegory for this very existential peril—environmental disaster—to our endurance as a species. Juxtaposed panoramically with Mayerson’s representations of national parks, these alien history paintings propose an alternate future for our planet in which a group of radical outsiders come to Earth to save it from climate catastrophe. He renders The Phoenix Lights: Still from a video taken by Mike Krystone, 10 pm, March 13, 1997 (2024) as luminous yellow blocks standing out from a Klimt-like field of purple and blue shapes that form a sumptuous mosaic in which landscape and sky morph, overlap, and dissolve into each other. In USS Roosevelt ‘Gimbal UFO’: Still from the Declassified Jan. 2015 Video (2023) and Battle of Los Angeles, February 24/25, 1942 (2024), Mayerson’s painterly brushstrokes fill skies and mountains with hundreds of eyes channeled from the “noise” of the original photos, silently witnessing the arrival of sublime cosmic phenomena. Provoking a consideration of what will come of Los Angeles and of America more broadly, Mayerson sews together past and present into a visionary tapestry that insists the country is worthy of redemption. - Karma presents an exhibition of paintings by Sadamasa Motonaga, open from May 23 to July 20 at 7351 Santa Monica Boulevard. Spanning five decades of work, this presentation introduces Los Angeles to Sadamasa Motonaga, a unique figure whose trajectory bridges contemporary Japanese Superflat painting with the existential artistic concerns of the immediate postwar era. Motonaga was born in 1922 in Japan’s mountainous Mie Prefecture. After working on the railroads and in munitions plants during World War II, the self-taught painter became a founding member of the Gutai Art Association, an avant-garde movement formed in reaction against the country’s restriction of art to nationalistic ends. As a part of Gutai, he created some of Japan’s most iconic pieces of installation art by tinting water and smoke with vibrant colors while also inventing a new style of painting using poured synthetic resin pigments. Gutai’s boundary-breaking celebration of children’s art, emphasis on physicality and play, and leveling of artistic hierarchies emboldened Motonaga to integrate the biomorphic shapes from the manga he had drawn since his childhood into his paintings, an approach that would continue until his death in 2011. Over the course of his artistic life, Motonaga’s paintings remained ever optimistic and immediate, influenced by popular culture and the avant-garde in equal measure. Sakuhin (1965), the earliest work in the show, marks the tail end of his high Gutai period. Instructed by the movement’s leader Jiro Yoshihara to make “pictures that have never been seen before,” Motonaga turned an accidental paint spill into a signature technique. Working on the floor, he streamed highly liquid resins into each other and manipulated his canvases to control their flow. This method borrowed from the historical Japanese wet-on-wet painting technique tarashikomi, or “dripping in.” At the same time, manga remained a central influence—white oil paint slicing into the two forms in Sakuhin bisect their flowing interiors, becoming open mouths that animate the two entities. In 1966, during a yearlong stay in downtown New York on an invitation by the Japan Society, gallerist Martha Jackson introduced him to Liquitex, an acrylic paint that did not yet exist in Japan, and Motonaga, who was inspired by the use of airbrush in Pop art by people like James Rosenquist, began experimenting with spraying it onto his canvases. Untitled (1967) features a trademark Motonaga shape that resembles an upside-down letter T, or perhaps a top hat, its red contours buzzing with a corona-like aura that fades from green into blue. Back in Japan at the end of the 1960s with his wife and young son, Motonaga published the first of what would become a suite of twenty-six illustrated children’s books starring the organic, hand-drawn characters that feature in his paintings. While his books introduced his art to a non-specialized audience, he aimed for his paintings to communicate the freedom of imagination evident in children’s drawings in a high-art context. In the painting Howa Howa (1978), twin bodies made of curved forms float above an uneven horizon line, their outlines shadowed against a subtly shifting sky. At once suggestive of manga characters and utterly abstract, these entities illustrate Motonaga’s fusion of cartooning with an avant-garde sensibility that refuses the instant revelation of meaning or narrative. In the 1990s, he returned to earlier experiments with poured paint and combined them with his signature forms, as is evident in White Linear Shape (1992) and Yellow Shape and White Flow (1993), both of which feature two-dimensional drawn shapes and free-flowing, wet-on-wet swirls. Motonaga’s collapse of high and low, as well as his insistence on the validity of ideas drawn from manga in the realm of high art, prefigured the Superflat generation’s appropriation of Japanese popular culture and graphic arts. While Takashi Murakami was coming to prominence with his anime-influenced art at the turn of the century, Motonaga was decades-deep into his avant-garde interpretation of the static manga from his youth. In Two Yellows (1997) and White Circle with Cross Stripes (2004), the double-figure composition of the 1965 Sakuhin reemerges, even more explicitly suggestive of a pair of beings due to the minimal, looped line through each circle that suggest a mouth and an eye. Overlap is Yellow and Green (1997) features the same T-form as 1967’s Untitled, this time multiplied against a splattered red field as if they have become their own species of imagined creatures. Motonaga’s humorous, mutating characters speak of the infinite possibilities implied in freeing oneself from the tyranny of so-called adult seriousness.