Friday, December 1st, 2006

James Reilly and Keith Mayerson

James Rielly: Tell us a Story
Galeria Ramis Barquet Chelsea
532 West 24 Street
New York City

October 20, 2006 – November 22, 2006

Keith Mayerson: Kings & Queens
Derek Eller Gallery
615 West 27th Street
New York City

October 20-November 25, 2006

James Rielly We Sustained Heavy Losses 2006 watercolor on paper, 30-1/8 x 22-1/4 inches  Courtesy Galeria Ramis Barquet
James Rielly, We Sustained Heavy Losses 2006 watercolor on paper, 30-1/8 x 22-1/4 inches Courtesy Galeria Ramis Barquet

Keith Mayerson and James Rielly appropriate photographic and filmic source material, transforming it through careful editing, alteration of scale and proportion, and inventive use of color. Whereas Mr. Rielly tends to appropriate photographic imagery of anonymous people from journalistic sources — favoring images of faces and groups of people often dressed in costume — Mr. Mayerson is interested in iconic images of famous people. And many elements found in their work are also pure imagination.

In Mr. Rielly’s current exhibition at Galeria Ramis Barquet, there is one watercolor that exemplifies the kind of irony he favors. The painting is titled “We Sustained Heavy Losses” (2006) and it is an image of a weird boy/man wearing a pale red shirt, black vest, lopsided sheriff’s badge, ill-fitting black cowboy hat, and a prank arrow piercing his temples à la Steve Martin. The disjointedness of the serious title and the seemingly light-hearted imagery causes a rift between the viewer and the work, and the humor becomes something sordid. Are we supposed to laugh at this clownish figure or pity him? What kind of losses are we talking about?

Mr. Rielly has developed a very light touch and minimal technique using watercolors through the years. There are no superfluous marks or tones. He places his figures and faces within nondescript environments, often leaving the paper in the background untouched. Sometimes he suggests water or grass, but there is no obvious context. This lends the work a symbolic and ambiguous quality. In the painting “Give me, more more more” (2006), we see the tilted head of a young male or female with three cigarettes hanging out of his or her mouth. This could be a symbol of gluttony or demanding youth, but the tilt of the head gives it an element of seductiveness. It could be that the figure is offering these cigarettes rather than consuming them.

There are a number of paintings of groupings of people in this exhibition, including a picture of a red-tinted audience gazing at some event in “Sometimes Everyone Looks Hairy” (2006), and a picture of a huddled mass of children with numbers on their chest in “Red, Yellow, Blue” (2006). The tri-colored group of children might be a comment on the psychology of the crowd, the loss of individuality.

Another painting with multiple figures, “Let’s queue” (2006), depicts three adults. One man is dressed as a centaur and wears a suit jacket, and the woman dressed as a mermaid holds a handbag. They could be waiting in line for a movie, and the casual combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary invites multiple readings.

Keith Mayerson Elvis ‘56 2006 oil on linen, 60 x 60 inches COVER, December 2006: The Beatles 1964, 2006, oil on linen,72 x 58 inches Courtesy Derek Eller
Keith Mayerson, Elvis ‘56 2006 oil on linen, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy Derek Eller

Keith Mayerson, whose work is on view at Derek Eller Gallery, paints pictures of pop-culture narrative and icons, but he is not interested in deconstructing our worship of celebrity. His work is about the painful and euphoric process of losing oneself in someone else. His painting style features energetic and tactile brushstrokes and a lush, subtly modulated palette. The effect is so sensual and earnest that we forget we are looking at images we have seen hundreds if not thousands of times before: The Beatles showered in confetti during their first visit to America, in the painting “The Beatles 1964” (2006); Elvis thrusting his pelvis forward as he balances on his toes onstage in the painting “Elvis ’56” (2006). As many times as we have seen these images, Mr. Mayerson manages to create surprising and beautiful translations into oil paint. The medium slows things down, and lends these beloved figures a timeless and elegiac quality.

In paintings like “Love Triumphant (James Dean in a Tree)” (2006), where we see a lushly painted image of James Dean masturbating naked in a tree, Mr. Mayerson has managed to transform a celebrity into a symbolical figure in order to express generalizations about human existence. The leafy canopies surrounding the figure are filled with writhing abstract forms and bodies. James Dean with an erection is a force of nature, synonymous with organic growth and plentitude.

In the painting “Temptation on the Mount (King Kong and Fay Wray battle the Giant Taradactyle)” (2006), the gorilla clutches Fay Wray with one hand and fends off a dinosaur bird with the other. In this painting, these aren’t silly Hollywood special effects. They represent aspects of our humanity (which they also do in the original film). But the sensuality of Mr. Mayerson’s brushstrokes lends a tactile quality that is missing from the film. The static painted image stands in contrast to the kinetic film image. The intensity of King Kong’s feelings for the human female become something more than a plot element in a narrative arc, and all of the latent sexual content comes to the surface in the painting. Battling monsters also look cool.