Geneva Anderson digs into art

Meet Richard Mayhew–Master of Electric, Eclectic, Majestic Abstraction at MoAD through March 7, 2010

Untitled (Red Bush) 1990's, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Stan and Marguerite Lathan

Now in its final week, “The Art of Richard Mayhew,” at San Francisco’s MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) is an important retrospective of the Santa Cruz Aptos-based painter, now 86, who wields color with a language and precision all his own but, sadly, is not widely known.   Standing before Richard Mayhew’s abstract paintings is a deeply moving experience—connecting the soul, poetry, nature, prayer, and memory.   We are made aware of something majestic, mystical.   Rothko evokes this depth of reaction as well, but it’s often an experience filled with heaviness, whereas Mayhew’s abstraction pulses with invigorating life force.  Mayhew has mastered the line between abstraction and representation, creating dreamlike environments that appeal to the senses and evoke nature’s constant rejuvination.   It’s also nice, in this day and age, to see someone who is not afraid of bold color and who knows how to use it to heighten emotional reaction, to touch the holy. 

Many of Mayhew’s early works are clearly landscapes with trees, often clustered together and executed in somber murky hues.  Later, over the course of forty years, the line blurs and the imagery becomes increasingly symbolic, suggesting trees or patterns in nature that seem bioluminescent, a term that means producing and emitting light, originating from the Greek bios for “living” and the Latin lumen for “light.”  Mayhew has painted in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New England, and California but he rarely paints scenes as they exist.  He takes different things from his imagination and collages them together into a kind of spiritual poem that takes form as an imagined landscape.   

Of African-American and Cherokee and Shinnecock descent, Mayhew was born in 1924 in Amityville on Long Island, where a deep appreciation of nature was instilled in him.  He came of age in New York during the 1950s explosion of Abstract Expressionist art and at 23, he became a medical illustrator and portrait painter in New York.  Several of those early works are on display at MoAD.  

Mayhew’s involvement in the Spiral Group in New York for several years in the 1960’s seems to mark an important turning point in his career and his painting style.  The group of African American artists was diverse in its artistic style and philosophies but was formed in July 1963 to discuss the role of Negro artists in the civil rights struggle.  It had only one exhibition in 1965 and all the works were black and white.  Shortly after the show, Mayhew painted over his black and white landscape and expressed his commitment to color. 

While he was involved with Spiral, his presence in the art world continued to blossom and mature and he began teaching and then won several prestigious awards and began performing as a jazz singer in New York.  He drove across country for the first time in 1964 and influenced by the open space and vivid colors of the West, his palette expanded and he embraced vivid irresistible psychedelic color—greens, yellows, oranges and browns.

 The deep-rooted symbolism of trees is apparent throughout his life’s work.  Forests too, recognized in virtually every culture on earth as the abode of nature–mysterious and constantly changing–a refuge from danger, as well as a home of exotic animals.    He delights in showing the continual rejuvenation of nature and the renewal of life.  His glowing trees evoke strong metaphors such as the Tree of Life or family trees whose sprawling branches depict our ancestral heritage.  In spiritual terms, the tree is the soul of the forest. Kill the tree, kill the forest, kill the culture.  The messages embedded in his works are endless.

Ritual, 2007, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Ilene and Michael Gotts

Many works stand out, but “(Untitled) Red Bush” from the 1990’s is striking–a group of fiery cherry tomato red trees basks in the bright sun against a backdrop of  lavender foliage and a jade green sky.   The tallest tree is larger than life and not contained within upper border of the canvas.   The gorgeous interplay between the red leaves of the trees and the vivid green of the grasses below suggests a careful intake of optical techniques gleaned from the old masters but modernized.   The fiery tree also holds a deep association with God.  In the Bible, Exodus, Chapter 3: 1-15, Moses is tending his sheep near Horeb and is mesmerized by a huge burning bush in the distance that is engulfed in flames but does not burn up.  As he approaches, God reveals himself dramatically to Moses from the midst of this burning bush, and commands Moses to return to Egypt and to deliver the Israelites from oppression.  Having seen and heard the voice of God, Moses obeyed.  

“Ritual” (2007) evokes a moody state—a still blue lake in a molten red field draws the eye upward to a thicket of magenta trees set against a neon orange sky. 

Lumbee, 2009, Oil on Canvas, Courtesy of ZONE: Contemporary Art

In “Lumbee” (2009), there is the sense that the viewer is looking down on tiny earth from above and then soaring right into the line of the horizon.   The patterns are somewhat recognizeable but color moves it away from familiarity to something fresh.  A yellow-lime green curving mass (water?) that spills across the canvas and directs the eye downward and to the right seems like a river but is colored like no river we’ve seen in nature before.  The painting’s title refers to the Lumbee nation of Native Americans based in North Carolina whose migration across the country and into the Massapequa region of New York, where Mayhew was born, pays tribute to Mayhew’s ancestry.

An important and interesting video, offered in a side gallery, shows Mayhew at work in his studio creating landscapes and talking about his life, influences and his artistic process with oil on canvas and watercolor on paper.  He never sketches his ideas in advance but pours paint directly onto paper, flooding the surface with  rich vibrant colors which he then pushes around to suit his taste.  He frequently pours salt on wet areas and uses spritzes of water to create a blended effect.   Important critics and artists provide important context for Mayhew’s oeuvre. 

The exhibition covers his work from the 1950’s to the present and is one of three recent fantastic Bay Area shows featuring Mayhew in various phases of his career.  “The Art of Richard Mayhew: Journey’s End” at The de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, September 26-December 4, 2009 focused on Mayhew’s mid-career from 1975 while “The Art of Richard Mayhew: After the Rain” at  The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, September 12-November 12, 2009, showcased work produced since his relocation to Santa Cruz county in 2000.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment