Jesus Chris Superstar (IS0017), 1995 Oil on Canvas 20 × 16 inches
Jesus Chris Superstar (IS0017), 1995
Oil on Canvas 20 × 16 inches

This is a very important painting for me, and one of the earliest works in the show.  I am a spiritual person, always seeking, and although I hold my hand over the flame of some religions, I haven’t given myself over to any just one, but am fascinated and respect all.  My relationship to Catholicism growing up (beyond going to Southern Baptist bible school when I visited my grandmother!) was through Jesus Christ Superstar the musical.  My parents had the original Broadway cast recording (brown cover) when I was small, and I used to play it over and over, and sing the songs.  I also loved the movie when I was older, and still occasionally play both soundtracks and enjoy going back to that place of my youth, but also the great music and retelling of the story.  When Andrew and I lived on Christopher Street in the West Village in the mid 90’s, the building manager allowed me to use the basement as a studio.  Although small (and perhaps asbestos filled!) it had its own bohemian allure, and it was down there that I worked on this painting fervently over (for that period in my work) some time, and as it was a hard period, really seeking solace through the act of painting the work, which of course I did while listening to the soundtrack.  I feel it is my job to make the image better than merely the film still—I love the text by Roland Barthes called “The Third Meaning” which discusses “vertical” readings towards film stills—what you can’t put into words, the emotions, ideas, and experience that exceeds the conscious expectations of the film makers, that ultimately may make the image resonate deeply for the viewer.  Hopefully I was able to bring this out here, I wanted to capture a certain ecstatic quality of all of what this image could be about.  I tried and tried, and couldn’t quite get it right, but one day the electrician had to come and do some work in the building’s basement, and he knocked over the painting on my palate, causing the dots and smears to appear.  Eureka!  It was finished, as it seemed this blotches were like Jesus being stoned, and/or creating the binary in which his ecstasy seemed to counter…

This painting appeared in my first solo show in New York at Jay Gorney Modern Art in the fall of 1997.  I had begun to make a name for myself and work with creating narrative installations of drawings and paintings that were tightly controlled and nuanced, with specific stylistic antecedents and intentions.  When I had the show at Jay’s, it was in a period after moving to NYC, when I really wanted to get “to the batteries that were operating the engine” of my appropriated styles—what was “me” in my various works that gave them consistency and signature.  I began creating a lot of automatic drawings and paintings, and allowed myself to try to really suture into my works while creating, not thinking consciously about what I was doing, but being mindful of my thoughts about what the subject matter meant to me, hoping that would come through in the works.  I hung abstract “Iconscapes” (two of which appear in the Whitney installation) of essentialized forms truly culled from my unconscious next to these representational works.   At the time, in this prominent, street level in Soho gallery, the show was an anomaly.  In the time of “Art & Fashion” when most paintings were photorealistic, this show threw people, hopefully in a good way.  I think a good art show is like a bomb that goes off, in a good way, where hopefully people are challenged and it can help to change the discourse in a more positive direction.  With these kinds of shows, some people hate them, some people love them.  With my Jay Gorney show, simply titled “Keith Mayerson, Paintings and Drawings”, instead of appropriating/retelling narratives (I had emerged by a drawing suite entitled “Pinocchio the Big Fag”, inspired by a musical I wrote of the same name), the narrative this time was myself and my work and interests—much the same as the Whitney installation.  These roughly hewn works (while Chaim Soutine was being enjoyed uptown at the Jewish Museum, and Nicolas de Stael shows that inspired me were also being positively reviewed) were often misunderstood.  Were they relating to Thrift Store painting (Jim Shaw’s book and exhibition of thrift store art was around the same time), etc., was a common misconception…  I thought I was relating to modernity, early American Modernism if anything, works by Dove, Hartley, O’Keefe, Forrest Bess, Burchfield, Albert Pinkham Ryder and so on were important to me, as I felt a post Post-modern affiliation to that kind of ideology and practice.  While some of the collectors ran to the hills, many painters really loved and “got” the show, and I’m proud that these folks are still my friends (and some of them are younger, prominent artists who mentioned being inspired in part by this work and show).  It was also very positively reviewed later in Art in America, which printed this image, and Burlington Magazine, by the artist and critic Merlin James. I felt vindicated in 2011 when the GOOD people at Knoedler gave me one of their last project room shows of the Iconscapes, and certainly am proud to have it included in the Biennial.  We live with this painting, which gives us good energy and hope, and I placed it here near the Buddy Gorilla and POLICE Iconscape paintings, as if the Buddy Robot Gorilla is the human spirit emerging from the King Kong/9/11 painting beside it, which gives the energy hopefully embodied by the POLICE painting.  I love and was very inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for this installation, and Jesus here is like one of his angels, helping the soul of King Kong (and all the peoples it may represent) to ascend.



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Chaim Soutine, Le Groom, 1925, Pompidou.


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The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind, El Greco 1570. Metropolitan Museum.

I have also always been a fan of El Greco, and his ecstatic rendering of Christ and other religious scenes.  Working from a tradition of Byzantine Icons, where the artist truly believe they were channeling the entity they were painting (which would almost come alive by their brush and “talk back to them”), I believe if you fervently believe in what you are painting, it does come alive, at least in your mind, but also hopefully in the mind of your viewer.  I think your unconscious spills out into your brush as you are painting like this, and amazing subconscious things occur in the paint—like subliminal advertising, unbeknownst perhaps even to the painter, strange things occur in the negative space, “interior negative space” and the nooks and crannies of the painting that the conscious, left-brain mind can’t control.  Famously in El Greco, eyes, faces, etc. happen in the folds of clothes (this is perhaps why Picasso and even Pollock learned so much by copying the master), and in this great painting in particular, above the blind man’s brow, an unconscious “third eye” appears like a Cyclops in his forehead…  I want this to happen as much as possible in my painting, I hope this starts happening in the ecstatic moments of this early work, and has continued to become more refined and embedded in my later works I’m painting now…