Dream Time


Keith Mayerson, My American Dream, 1991–. Installation view, Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

MY EXHIBITIONS are non-linear narratives, where the juxtaposition of each image together tells a specific story, like Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in his great book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994). My American Dream, recently included by curator Stuart Comer in the Whitney Biennial, was a giant comic composition, in addition to being a salon-style installation of paintings. I created “horizontal” installations in which paintings still tell stories but in a contemporary format. In homage to the early days of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the forthcoming arrival of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Breuer building, I thought salon-style was an appropriate way to create this composition. And it felt like there might be more freedom, in a vertical reading, in how the viewer’s eyes could flow from one image to another to create meaning.

My American Dream was an uber narrative, born from a large cosmology of mostly the last four years of painting personal images from photographs I take of my own life—of my husband and myself, our family, and world—but also from a long (I’ve been exhibiting for twenty years now!) career of painting from appropriated imagery and abstraction. Stuart and I worked together to select the paintings from this larger group, and then I created the layout, thinking about the narrative and visual flow, the relationships between the works and the way viewers might navigate them and come to their own conclusions of what ultimately My American Dream could mean for the twenty-first century.

The Beatles, one of the subjects I paint, I feel were the first postmodern band in that they would speak through avatars—they weren’t the Beatles, they were “Sgt. Pepper,” they weren’t lonely, but “Eleanor Rigby” was. And I love John and Yoko, post-Beatles, and perhaps post-postmodernism, when they wrote and sang about their own lives and it was powerful and emotional enough to relate to others. Pictures of Superman, Kermit, Tintin, and more are icons that, as McCloud describes, we “suture into” while reading and watching them, letting them become our avatars, like in a RPG video game, as we go on their journey. Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks are icons who really lived who we can also relate to—painting their portraits gave me hope and inspiration, and I hope people who view my piece will be reminded that what these historical figures stood and struggled for is still all-important.

In an act McCloud deems “closure,” a viewer of a comic is a participant in the creation of its ultimate content when he or she completes the action from one panel to the next, in order to go along on the journey with the story’s main characters. I hope that the viewers of my work will similarly relate to these important figures and scenes that helped to forge the great America we currently live in, thanks in part to some of these very icons. And I hope that My American Dream will inspire people to continue the struggle to make our country a better place for freedom, and—to quote Superman (if it’s not too patriarchal or nationalistic!) for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

Keith Mayerson is an artist based in New York, where he is Cartooning Coordinator and has taught comics since 1995 at the School of Visual Arts. Horror Hospital Unplugged, his 1996 graphic novel in collaboration with Dennis Cooper, was republished by Harper Perennial in 2011. His two-person show with Peter Saul is at Robert Blumenthal Gallery, New York, July 8 through August 8th.

For more comics-related material, see Artforum’s Summer 2014 print issue.