1.8 / Review

The Art of Richard Mayhew

By Christine Kesler February 10, 2010

Richard Mayhew’s retrospective, currently on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, presents an artist whose work defies expectations. Mayhew, of African and Native American descent, is a painter whose style reflects his European and U.S. travels more than the social activism or artistic trends of the 1960s, the period during which his artistic career began. True to this nonconformity, his work on display at MoAD both functions within the genre of landscape painting and simultaneously broadens the genre’s definition.

Mayhew’s work does this by engaging with the concept of the picturesque, a term which originated as an aesthetic ideal in a practical text for England’s privileged leisure class published in 1782. William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770 was a guide for scenic pleasure touring. The expeditions of the 18th century beckoned the English upper class to know the aesthetic qualities of their land around them.[1] Characteristics of the picturesque were invented to uphold an aesthetic standard, and continue to signify unifying elements thought to represent the presence of the divine in the world around us. The term refers to a mediating quality, a set of ideals located somewhere between the beautiful and the sublime.

Mayhew’s paintings explore the delineation between the picture (meant to be beautiful) and the landscape (sublime—great and sometimes terrifying). Much of his work on display demonstrates a childlike exploration of color and mood, in which he pushes traditions of landscape painting and its Romantic precedents into freer and more psychedelic territory than painters of prior periods did. The peace and playfulness of Mayhew’s vision is tenable. His work negotiates art historical influences, reflecting the style of European artists while also evincing the artist’s own development and diverse cultural influences. Most of the work occupies a space around landscape painting, broadening the genre’s definition to include looser and more spiritual realms.

Mayhew was raised in Amityville, New York, and, according to the Museum’s presentation, had an uneventful upbringing. As an artist, he has crisscrossed the country and the globe, gathering visual information on the landscape surrounding him much like the 18th-century elite class did. Although Mayhew is distinguished from these leisure-seekers both in his heritage and upbringing, the artistic production that resulted from his journeys through the United States is obviously influenced by the European masters, to which he

Untitled (Purple Landscape), 1990s; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco.

Spring Transition, 2008; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco.

was exposed during his extended visit to Europe in the early ’60s. Given permission to access the archives of the Prado, Rijksmuseum, and the Louvre, the artist identified with the forms and themes of his European predecessors more than with the then-current climate of artistic production in the United States.

Bridget Cook’s curation at MoAD, and the museum’s simple setup, effectively present a number of Mayhew’s formal devices. The lone tree and wild thicket persisted through his paintings of the ’60s and ’70s. Mayhew has never adopted overt African symbolism into his work; rather his style speaks to the long history of the Hudson River school, plein-air painters, and Impressionists. And in a shift from tradition, he paints not one landscape but many in each painting, formless and mingled on the canvas as a memory or a trace. Untitled (Purple Landscape) (1990s) and Rhapsody (2002) exemplify this non-specific, even rather vague, grouping of landscape-like elements. Works like Spring Transition (2008) delve almost completely into abstraction, while others, such as Westwood (1977), seem to lean more heavily on Impressionistic values. Mayhew’s work recalls Immanuel Kant’s assertion of the sublime as a thing “to be formed in a formless object.”[2] He often employs the motif of a lone tree, using mysterious and moody brushstrokes. This tree stands perhaps for beauty “mingled with Horrours, sometimes almost with despair.”[3]

Mayhew’s later works, especially Love Bush (2000), are indeed nimble, excellently positioned to dodge classification—much like the institution that houses them. Mayhew’s work explores, as the Museum purports to, how many sources and stories have changed and influenced the history and cultures of the African diaspora; his influences are enriched by European history as well as that of the African American culture. (MoAD’s history is in line with the African American strategies—born of necessity—of improvisation, spontaneity, and agility. The museum’s mission statement includes a description of the diaspora it aims to represent and explore; MoAD celebrates the contributions people of African descent have made across the globe. It is a home for collaborative storytelling: stories of origins, movement, adaptation, and transformation.)

This spectacular age in which we live, covered with images and representations, certainly has some bearing on how we now interpret picturesque. In my research for this piece, I stumbled upon an award-winning software application called Picturesque, created by two Australian designers—designed, quite simply, to make images more gorgeous. They received the Apple Design award (Apple being the beacons of aestheticism that they are). The application promises compositions, layers, and glowing, luminous colors. The picturesque can be yours with the click of a mouse and a download. But Mayhew has me still convinced of the magic of painting and painting alone.


The Art of Richard Mayhew is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco through March 7, 2010.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picturesque
[2] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. Macmillan, 1951. Translator's introduction and notes to the Critique of Judgment
[3] Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. "Sublime in External Nature". Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York, 1974.


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