For over half a century, Richard Mayhew has been painting vibrantly colored landscapes that gracefully negotiate the border region between representation and abstraction. This summer, Zone: Contemporary Art in New York City presented “Monuments,” a solo exhibition of highlights from his career. In the fall, three San Francisco Bay Area institutions—the De Saisset Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz—are running concurrent shows, each focusing on a different phase of the artist’s oeuvre (October 9, 2009–January 10, 2010).
For Mayhew, nature is the portal to “a universal space with the illusion of time.” Born in Amityville, New York, and descended from African-American, Cherokee and Shinnecock Indian stock, he has a strong sense of place, although he is not a close observer of specific topographical details. He grew up drinking in the interplay of water, sky and earth around Long Island Sound and watched the New York City painters who came for the summer to work. He studied with Ruben Tam and Hans Hofmann at the Brooklyn Museum, went to Pratt and the Art Students League and earned an art history degree from Columbia University. Mayhew feels a special affinity for two defining movements in American art history: the Hudson River School, with their celebration of nature’s spiritual illuminations, and the Abstract Expressionists, who approached painting as a shamanistic practice. Primarily a colorist, Mayhew found his own lyrical, pantheistic aesthetic, distinct from the culturally freighted realism of Thomas Cole and his followers, on the one hand, and the muscular drama of Jackson Pollock and associates, on the other. At his best, Mayhew combines ecstatic color fields with a convincing vestige of spatial recession. In Fortissimo (2002), he positions a middle-distance cluster of trees between the varied greens of a field and a sky of hot pink and orchid. The trees are blue and cast a complementary orange reflection in a foreground stream. Colors are heightened, yet so well balanced that they do not seem arbitrary, and the composition holds together as a landscape.
Mayhew is a jazz musician as well as a painter, and the titles of his paintings are often taken from musical terminology. In Rhapsody (2002), the green foreground rears up, a foliage screen. The tree that rises above the screen is a violet silhouette, subtly shaded toward pink and plum. The profile of the tree trunk against an intense blue sky is particularly effective. Mayhew layers his oil paint in a way that approaches the stained-glass-color glow of Redon’s pastels. Shape is a unifying force in Fortissimoand Rhapsody. Clouds and leafy boughs have similar curvy, organic forms: the living landscape seems to be organizing itself from some primordial vital matter. Mayhew’s pictures look nothing like van Gogh’s, but the Dutch artist does something similar when he carries his energy-spiral brushstrokes through clouds, fields of grain and cypresses. Pater’s famously enigmatic declaration that all art aspires to the condition of music has been associated with Whistler’s “Nocturnes” and “Symphonies” and the synesthetic experiments of Kandinsky and Scriabin. But, at a basic level, it is a way of emphasizing the importance of formal rhythm and harmonic color. Mayhew, who works from memory, is particularly adept at improvisation, which requires both skill and instinct—the musician’s ear, the artist’s eye.
Many of Mayhew’s paintings are in the traditional horizontal landscape format, including some from an elevated point of view: Montalvo depicts an open expanse of lime grass, shadowy blue-gray and maroon trees and a pale yellow sky; in Soquel Valley (2006), we seem to be skimming through ochre-gold and violet clouds over blue water. Mayhew, who spent time in Europe and traveled across America to add the western landscape to his repertoire of natural motifs, now lives in Santa Cruz, California, between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, and uses features of the nearby Soquel Valley in his continuing exploration of the genre.
Trees are often central for Mayhew’s compositions, and he sometimes selects a vertical canvas for what is essentially a portrait. In Monument (2004), a strictly frontal, irregular-edged, dark green arborescent shape is pushed up against the picture plane; the backdrop is a throbbing orange-red. While subtle tonal variations give the foliage convincing texture, the highly charged presentation suggests an emblem of transcendence. Mayhew’s almost druidical reverence for trees is expressed more naturalistically in Cello Solo (2002). An S-curve tree with dusky green foliage rises majestically from maroon-brown earth, silhouetted against a pale greenish sky, in a landscape softened by mist. With its retinal punch, Monument reflects Mayhew’s longtime fascination with color theory. Cello Solo demonstrates his skill with atmospheric perspective: the restrained, tonalist palette evokes a sense of crepuscular mystery, adding to the drama of the imposing asymmetrical tree’s presentation.
Mayhew’s long career stretches back to his first solo show, at the Brooklyn Museum, in 1955, and encompasses his work as a co-founder, along with Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, of the Spiral Group in the 1960s and a distinguished teaching record. He continues to paint daily, creating distinctive contemporary paintings that tap into American touchstones from the spiritual landscape to the music of Miles Davis. Zone: Contemporary Art, 41 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 255-2177. On the web at www.zonecontemporary.com