Sunday, October 23, 2011

An exhibition of early-1960s David Mayrs oil paintings opened at Trench Gallery last week. Below is my exhibition essay:


“…a sort of Pango Pango quality mingled with sausage and mash and generally a rather puritan atmosphere. Everyone fast asleep and when you prick them a Union Jack flows out of the hole.” – Malcolm Lowry on Vancouver, 1947 [1]

Advances in temporal reckoning have allowed the early-1960s to enter the realm of “historical drama.” With television programs such as Mad Men and Pan Am comes a conversational interest in the era -- realism for those who lived it, science fiction for those who did not. Central to both programs is an essay on gender relations and sexual expression. Less relevant to Pan Am than Mad Men are issues that face the creative individual. How can I make art when I spend all my time jobbing to pay the rent? How can I paint using representational imagery when the critics are pre-occupied with abstraction?

A studio practice and a salaried position were slightly more manageable in 1961 than they are in 2011, and for a time David Mayrs attempted both, eventually leaving advertising in the late-1960s to teach at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), a job that allowed him to paint in the same clothes he went to work in. Although it would be incorrect to focus solely on occupational and aesthetic tensions in Mayrs’s paintings, one can find traces of each. Where there is representation, there is abstraction; where there is illustration, there is expressive painting; where there is archetype, there is ambiguity; and where there is liberation, there is of course repression.

Mayrs’s Trench Gallery exhibition brings this last tension to the fore with liberation narratives such as La Dildo (196X), The Queens (196X) and St George Ten Minutes After Slaying the Dragon (196X) on the east wall and repressions such as The Bachelor (196X), The Eunuch (196X) and The Old Maid (196X) to the west. Alone on the south wall is the first painting one sees upon entering the gallery, a work that manages to both complicate and explain the logic of the exhibition layout -- Mirror, Mirror (196X).

Like La Dildo, Mirror, Mirror contains within it a hard-edge grey-scale field. While this field floats improbably under the blanket in La Dildo, in Mirror, Mirror it is the wall on which floats a mirror and its reflected subject. That this subject is reminiscent of de Kooning’s “Woman” series speaks to Mayrs’s recognition of a new and emergent female subject, one more complex and ultimately more powerful than her 1950s predecessor; that she is wearing a life-like penis (as opposed to a gender neutral appendage) has her less a lesbian “top” than a woman performing her strap-on agency (whether this performance is an affirmation of her empowerment, or its burlesque, is debatable). However, what is operative is not the female subject but the unlikelihood of the room in which she is painted, where the hard-edge wall upon which her mirror is placed stands in opposition to the abstract expressive wall behind her. Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) come to mind. So too does the relationship between the paintings on the east and west walls.

And what of that west wall? In the Baconesque Eunuch a chubby figure dressed in blue shorts, a red jacket and a pointed yellow cap (a primary schoolboy in primary colours) stands ramrod. His body, like the air around him, is rendered in lashes, not strokes, over which fall drips similar in colour to his shorts. Although tempted to see these drips as tears, there is nothing in the eunuch’s posture to suggest that he is crying, despite a castration that has forever chained him to his pre-pubescent youth. So the tears are the viewer’s tears, and they are shed for someone who cannot repress that which he does not desire. Thus repression is imposed, not by the artist but by the empathetic viewer. Whether the eunuch’s emasculation resulted from a world that had begun to question male privilege, or is a reflection of the artist’s frustration with a criticism that has figurative painting passé, is also for the viewer to decide. Suffice it to say, Eunuch is less a portrait of someone for whom castration occurred over time (use-it-or-lose-it atrophy) than an advertisement for a condition that has our decisions made for us.

The repression found in The Bachelor and The Old Maid is also imposed, this time by the artist’s titles, which belong more to a “puritan” society than the subjects’ relationship status (unmarried). A fourth painting, Peggy & Pauline (196X), is something of a departure. Although the most abstract of all the west wall paintings, Peggy & Pauline is still a work of expressive figuration, and only after consulting its title does a second (and perhaps third) figure appear. Indeed, upon first looking at this painting I saw not a coupling (two women whose faces meet in profile) but a transformation, where one does not intertwine herself with another but becomes another, a new person, a road out of the repressive cycle that characterized what was until the end of the decade a British Vancouver, one that received its culture, as opposed to generating it. While the title and composition of Peggy & Pauline suggests a particular, if unspoken, relationship between two women, it is on the east wall that we find it consecrated.

In The Queens, a “femme” in a wedding gown and a Stein-like “butch” stand at the altar while a third figure (a witness?) looms behind them. While the wedding of two women would have shocked viewers in the early-1960s, it is the archetypical (stereotypical?) pairing of “femme” and “butch” that viewers today would have trouble with. But the pairing is a wash when compared to the third figure, who is painted in a manner closer to Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) than the cartoon couple, someone many early-1960s women looked up to -- Jacqueline Kennedy. But what is “Jackie” doing at a same-sex wedding, other than to say that a woman marrying another woman is something she would sign her name to? Also worth noting is that it is “Jackie”, not the “butch”, who arrived at the wedding in pants. That the shadow cast by all three resembles a piece from a jigsaw puzzle speaks to their role in what advertisers today refer to as the “bigger picture.”

The best known of Mayrs’s paintings is St. George Ten Minutes After Slaying the Dragon. Like La Dildo, this is a work that, when first shown at Douglas Gallery in 1966, drew the attention of local media, but also the police, who insisted that the gallery place a “restricted” sign in its window. While not as explicit (and ironic) as La Dildo’s “male frontal nudity,” St. George’s offense was that it showed not a sexual act but a sexual act involving an English military saint, something that would have galled British Vancouver, and did. Narrative content aside, what is notable in this painting are the many styles Mayrs employs, not merely illustrated figures foregrounding an expressionistic landscape, but a saint in cartoon profile and an anonymous maiden who, despite her nudity (or because of it), is more realized than her lover.

Art in the early-1960s depended on where one lived. The art of Vancouver was the abstracted landscape painting of Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith, a pragmatic blend of our province’s scenic beauty and a recognition of abstraction as the dominant international style. In the United States, the blend began with artists who had emerged from the commercial field – Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles and Andy Warhol in New York. But where Ruscha and Warhol used photography and screen-printing to make their everyday serial artworks, Mayrs combined multiple drawing and painting styles -- from the expressionism of Beckmann and de Kooning, to the hard-edge fields of Noland and Stella, to the Playboy cartoons of Interlandi and Sneyd. And while all three were familiar with the role of sex in advertising, it was Mayrs who took it the farthest.

Looking back on Mayrs’s paintings I am struck by the courage it took to make and display them. Although a well-managed controversy can do wonders for an art career today, that was not always the case in the early-1960s, where the conflation of high and low culture (the kind Ruscha and Warhol would become famous for) was not looked upon favorably in Vancouver -- to say nothing of the insertion of psycho-sexual imagery. Indeed, it was another twenty years before Vancouverites would cheer the expressionist canvases of Attila Richard Lukacs, a reception that could have only come about with the liberation of those once referred to as “bachelors.”

1. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lipincott Company, 1965), 121.

Michael Turner

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