James Meyer's Ironic Pentameter: A Sunny Massacre of Innocence

By Matthew Rose

The origins of American Pop Art, oddly enough, might date to a 1940s radio program. During a broadcast of the popular show Fibber & Molly McGee ("Molly's Easter Dress Creation" March 23, 1948), Harlow Wilcox, the annoying spokesperson for the show's sponsor, Johnson's "Glo-Coat Wax," emerges annoyed from the office of Wistful Vista's fashion maven, Henri. Henri, who was French, turned down Wilcox's idea for a new fashion trend. Wilcox pumped – no matter what the occasion – Johnson's Glo-Coat Wax, a new product specifically-designed for America's new suburban reality: Linoleum.

Wilcox's ad campaign is pure pop: A printed dress featuring cans of Johnson's Glo-Coat (and a signature and his telephone number) set in a colorful and repetitive pattern. Fashion in the age of mechanical reproduction wasn't due for another 20 years. The emergence of commercial (advertising) and popular material and subjects into high art began famously in the in the early 20th century Picasso/Braque works, but took root more energetically in the 1950s, led largely by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and then, more famously and perhaps more nihilistically, Andy Warhol. Each sought to drown the sunny kind of American innocence, and each succeeded with a signature style.

A rather long introduction to lead us to the paintings of James Meyer, a 45 year old painter who might be called a diarist of America's suburban malaise as it sets it self up within a sun dappled parable of America and its paranoid obsession with innocence. Meyer's pedigree is Pop. For more than two decades he's assisted Jasper Johns. (I met Meyer in the early 1990s when I wrote a piece, never published, about artist assistants for Vogue). I was always fascinated with the strange relationship the two artists had – James once told me any lines he drew on Johns' canvases would eventually be erased and redrawn by Jasper. Johns brought a Duchampian vision to Pop as James, two generations later, held onto emotional and somewhat realistic narratives that went hand in hand with painting. I grew up with Johns' aesthetic, but James' suburbia. Both artists' works have always made sense to me as a moving picture (or target) of the American self.

Two recent exhibitions of Meyer's paintings and watercolors bear this out. Children pose in sunny locales, at amusement parks, splashing about in the sun, or juxtaposed with third world scenes of suffering in a tightly composed "window." In works such as Race 2004 or Summer Lesson, 2004 or Transformation, 2004 an all over composition bends and twists a photographic origin into a vibrant, almost light-emitting window. Still, the narrative, sometimes parable qualities are brought to bear on the subject: A little girl swings high off a tree, almost out of the picture frame, while an older woman walks by – a simple reflection on age, innocent and spirituality. (New Works on Paper, 4 - 31, 2005 at Weber Fine Art). Meyer often superimposes one window upon another, in ways that remind one of Eric Fischl or David Salle, as both compositional strategy and as narrative subtitle, such as the works in Ironic Pentameter 2 June - 8 July 2005 at the Sandra Gering Gallery in Chelsea, in NYC. Meyer, however, isn't as pornographic or oblique as those 1980s artists. In Not Untitled, 2005 or Song of Minimalism, 2005 there is a compression of images of innocence and suffering, delivered up in brightly expressed watercolors that could make for heartbreaking greeting cards. The effect is direct, the compositions sure and the message clear: The delicious fantasy of innocence is slaughtered in the most insidious of ways. Happy snapshots of suburbia before the Fall. The results are complex and moving images.

What follows is an exchange that took place over t he course of June and July, 2005… following on the heels of James Meyer's successful exhibition at Sandra Gering Gallery in NYC.

What first prompted you to draw, and to make art?

I first started drawing on the black board when our grade school teacher was out of the room, there was another kid that was as good as I was and we would have a draw off until the teacher came back to discover 20 or 30 drawings on the board. Nobody claimed to have done them… Later I saw that drawing was the only thing I did well so it became a way of me feeling good about being in school.

And what were the drawings– irreverent images of the teacher?

They were more like cartoons, really. I just started to draw, and sometimes the drawing turned into a person, sometimes a monster. They really went anywhere.

When did you begin collecting your drawings in some sort of order and realize that making these things was a way to map out a personal or philosophical approach to the world?

I began to think of these drawings as something different in high school. My art teacher was great, and she provided a way out of school for me, giving me a key to the classroom. I could come and go as I pleased. She also had shows with artists in New York City, so we would go there, too. I had abandoned drawing in my senor year and was working on things that weren't really art. For example,. I blocked the school hallway off with a sign marked "Hallway Closed," when it really wasn't – just to see who would turn around. I would take coffee and a cup and spoon and spill a little on a desk, and set up a situation of was drinking coffee in the school where there wasn't any coffee. Then, when I was about 17, I read a piece by Pierre Cabbane, "Dialogue with Marcel Duchamp" (1967) where Duchamp said painting was dead. I felt I had to prove him wrong and so gravitated toward painting. It only took twenty years for the interest to come back to it.

When did you first realize that making art was something important to you…Before art school? Afterwards?

Art was almost always important to me – it got me positive attention in school. I was asked to do murals, and produced several in junior high school. In fact, I did little else in school. In high school, I produced prints and even showed them in town (Northport, Long Island). An artist approached me and asked me some questions about printmaking and proposed we trade skills. She had a life drawing class in the afternoon and I could come for free if I showed her students how to make prints. So one or two days a week, I would leave school around 12:00 and take the train to Port Jefferson several towns away to teach. It was great fun and I met a lot of great people. But I never told anyone – not my parents or teachers and I ended up paying for it later: A truant officer went looking for me. I saw him several times but he never caught me. It seems dumb now I'm sure the school would have let me go if I told them what I was doing, but I didn't.

Art school was a bust, I stayed for two years and was finally asked to leave because I would hand in whatever I was working on and pay no attention to the assignment. The last straw came when I was getting reviewed in my second year. The teacher was very late to class, and .I got pissed off. I put my paintings back in my car (I had driven them in from long Island – about 50 miles). Well, the teacher showed up just as I was bringing my last painting out and asked me where I was going. I told him he was late, and I was leaving and that was the end of school. In a sense, my teachers had already told me I didn't need art school, since I knew what I wanted to make. So I went to Washington D.C. and started to paint. To be an artist I had a cheap, $100 a month apartment, and really didn't have to do much to make my rent. Over the course of a few months, (this was the early 1980s), I made some paintings and moved back to New York. All my friends had graduated and several opened Galleries on the Lower East Side. They let me live in these beat up spaces and occasionally show my paintings.

Can you say that working for Johns changed the way you make art? How has it affected you in your visual mapping of a canvas?

The encaustic use has made an impact. Had I not gone to art school I would have barely known that Jasper Johns was an artist. In fact during those years, I had no idea what his work was like. I was looking for a job, and asked one of my friends who had a gallery, who might be interested in hiring me full time? I wanted to apprentice with someone, but being very ignorant of the art world, it never occurred to me that someone would have a studio – to make art in! – and have another studio in the country for the summer time. The gallery (I'm sure laughing all the way) gave me a list of artists – Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Richard Artchswager and others. It was July at the time, and of course, nobody was around but I dutifully knocked on each door. Someone did, however, open the door at Johns' studio. It was Al Taylor an artist now dead who had worked for Rauschenberg and left, and then got roped into helping Jasper because he had just come back to New York and was out of money. Al was taking prints out of frames and he thought I was expected – as I would now assume anyone was expected, because nobody "just shows up." So, I dropped my slides off with a letter of recommendation, and went home. My wife Amy asked me if I had another copy of my resume and letter to use the following day. I didn't so I went back to get the copy from Taylor the next day to make a copy and Jasper was there. All I wanted were my slides and letter back. He thought I was out of my mind, but said I could have the material back after we talked. So, two hours later, he hired me, told me to come back the next day and that was more than 10 years ago.

Jasper has a way of working that is very economical and time saving. If you spent time drawing something, then why draw it again? I learned to trace work, enlarge it, reuse it, and all the while acquire a freedom in reproducing images – a lot of these ideas come from print making, and this was a kind of print making that Jasper did often. Degas did a lot of these time-saving techniques, you can make a lot of art in very little time. Another thing Jasper taught me was how to use encaustic. For along time I didn't work in it out of respect for his medium, (I was asked to demonstrate encaustic for CT art teachers and I realized how much I knew about. In fact the first time I had ever made an encaustic painting was about four years ago. I fell in love with the medium and soon I gave away my oil paints to another artist. Encaustic is very fast, so you work quickly in a short period of time.

In the construction of the painting itself, Jasper showed me how to paint out some things, to lose part of the work when making variations, and in altering the surface.

Most important, however, Jasper has taught me to think about what I'm making before I make it. I think for weeks at a time before I begin a series, and then I produce the series in short period of time. I think more before I work on them again, and the process moves along like that. But sometimes I think so much and of course, nobody pays any attention to something you've put there. Like this idea of Ironic Pentameter. I thought it was so great – 5 works. Three and two. Three being same with this first and third world viewing each other, the titles all a paradoy of the art world, and the two others being true to me, to mself…the real titles real to me and the art building on thought. A bit personal, I guess… I don't think one person asked me about it..and when I mentioned it to people they saw it, but most people didn't… It's curious, the process of developing an idea to the finished piece…

What would you say was your subject when you first began image-making...? Has this changed over time?

My subject has always been people living in some kind of society. When I made those early drawings, it was more about individual psychology or better, how people would react to events. Then, I did paintings of people on trains. There were different riders occupying different trains. One car had stock market runners (kids just out of school) and young construction workers because they have the same hours – 6 am to 4 pm. Then I got stuck. I couldn't think of anything to make, so I spent a month not doing anything and became very worried. My uncle called and said they were going to the Eastern Shore. Did I want to come? We put chairs in his pickup truck and sat in the bed driving out of Washington D.C. I sat in the back watching people in cars drive by. Each had its own flavor. The riders, the family, taking their environment with them as they traveled through another environment, I loved this. And suddenly I was off – I made eight paintings and showed them when I got back to NYC.

Why have you focused so strongly on American suburbia?

Suburbia is what I know. It's not like I'm looking from the outside slumming or in an anthropological way. I think that the suburban idea is so startling because the notion of "one-size-fits-all" has conquered the American psyche – or has appeared to– and that is simply not the case. I can remember my neighborhood. There was an old sand pit a mile square and 300 to 400 feet deep. When the company that owned and operated the pit hit clay they decided to build houses there. Except it still looked like a sand pit – only with houses in it! The builders kept coming down on their prices until people started moving in. I can remember going to other kids houses, a good friend of mine family really couldn't afford to live there, and so they had no furniture in the house. As a kid you kind of didn't pay attention to it, I delivered newspapers in the morning so I got to see a lot of these people. One house, the father was a truck driver. He would park his 18-wheel rig on the front lawn when he was home. The kids were older, but lived at home and were on the creepy side and were always trying to get me to come in and stay but it was to weird even for me. I tend to have a high tolerance for that, too. Suburbia is pretty strong stuff… I remember the film, The Rivers Edge where these teenagers kill a friend of theirs and keep him around and show other kids and eventually the police catch on and everyone gets caught, and one kid hangs himself in jail. That's based on a true story. In another town a man would troll malls and kidnap kids and keep them in a warren of tunnels. One kid escapes and eventually they catch this madman…these events are fascinating to me because on the surface everything seems quiet and calm. My neighbor was first generation American and we had a pellet gun and his grandfather would ask me to bring it whenever I can over so he could shoot pigeons to eat. True.

Sounds like a strange kind of Paradise Lost.

I think 1950s suburbia has been largely forgotten. My parents kept in touch with their roots – a life 180 degrees in the opposite direction from American suburbia. We would visit my grandmother who lived in this dying coal mining town full of Greek orthodox Catholics. Every time we visited the town would be a little more dead.

Are you inspired by these visions, then? Are you translating them?

In my new show, Ironic Pentameter, there are a few works that are really me: Notes from Underground is one in particular – based on the novel by Dostoyevsky. There is this man narrating his story, trying to be something and always failing, and always blaming other people for his poor behavior. So he watches the world from his silent perch. I can't help but be like that in a way, but I want make things that people can revisit year after year and continue to see something new – like this coal mining town. What I realized was how much my vision of childhood influenced by view of innocence – and perception. How key that was to my whole way of working. I had to write my "journey in art" for the Gotlieb Foundation. It was very helpful, actually in that it made me realize how much I relied on children and youth, this childlike questioning, finding out about people… it all happens when you are very young, a teenager. It's a conceptual arena for composition to take place. That's why I use so many examples of children in my work.

What is the role of photography in your work?

I collect images from old magazines as well as photographs that people throw away, sometimes I get some kids and have them play and take pictures. It is by combining these sources that I arrive at a final image. There is sort of a movement toward an idea and using the photos forces the idea to the surface. In this last group, Ironic Pentameter, I used childhood photos I unearthed… They were from a festival that we went to in the desert in California. The rides were the sorts of things you'd find in Mexico, older stylized, this western feeling but in excess…where you have leisure and reality. Here are histories, stories, all crashing in upon each other… and of course, children abound. They don't see it all, do they?

Matthew Rose is an artist and writer based in Paris, France. See: MATTHEW ROSE WEB SITE