At 99, the Painter Richard Mayhew Is Still Upending Expectations

The painter Richard Mayhew, who just lately celebrated his 99th birthday, has lived by as broad a swath of this nation’s historical past as anybody you may hope to satisfy.

Sitting at a patio desk exterior his cedar-shingled suburban dwelling in Soquel, close to Santa Cruz, Mayhew leaned again in his chair and mirrored on his lengthy life.

“I drove across the United States six times,” he stated. “Three over, and three back, from New York to San Francisco. I was always looking.”

A lifetime spent wanting is all Mayhew now wants, by way of reference materials, when he paints in the storage connected to the home, listening to jazz so loud, his spouse, Rosemary, informed me, “the whole neighborhood can hear it.” (Mayhew is difficult of listening to.) Since the Fifties, Mayhew has painted invented landscapes in an more and more unnatural, generally acid palette that may sting and soothe the eye in equal measure.

In 2021, a whole room in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was devoted to Mayhew’s work, six of which had been donated by the collector Pamela Joyner, a stalwart supporter. Despite Mayhew’s lengthy profession, many guests had been encountering them there for the first time.

An exhibition of Mayhew’s work, “Natural Order,” is at the moment on present at Venus Over Manhattan, inaugurating a brand new house the gallery has opened on Great Jones Street. In September, a survey of his work will seem at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in Sonoma, Calif.

To name this late flurry of consideration a rediscovery, nonetheless, is to miss the successes he’s had all through his profession. His work has been proven at a gradual succession of New York galleries since the Fifties, together with the venerable Midtown Galleries and, most just lately, ACA Galleries, which continues to signify him. In 1970, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design.

Mayhew, who has combined African American and Native American ancestry, has a stocky body, a salt and pepper goatee and closely lidded eyes; his speech is punctuated by a compulsive chuckle. Given his age, his vitality and his capability for recalling particulars are astonishing.

In 1942, he was amongst the first Black cadets accepted into the U.S. Marines. The ordinarily grueling coaching course of, he remembers, was particularly brutal for Black cadets. “They didn’t want you to make it,” he stated. In 1963, he helped discovered the African American artwork collective Spiral, which included figures similar to Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis and debated the chance of an inherently Black aesthetic.

Mayhew grew up in a time when the United States was torn by racial segregation. He was born close to Amityville, on the South Shore of Long Island. “It’s a strange thing,” he stated, “but Amityville was not segregated like other towns at that time.”

His mom, whom he calls a “flamboyant city girl,” typically disappeared on lengthy journeys to Manhattan. (His “bohemian” father, a home painter who additionally ran a limousine firm, most well-liked to remain dwelling.) He was raised, most of the time, by his Shinnecock grandmother, who taught him about his Indigenous heritage and took him to powwows.

Mayhew’s Native American id is simply as — if no more — essential to him than his id as an African American. (He feedback that in others’ perceptions of him, the latter typically eclipses the former.) What he inherited from his Indigenous forebears, he says, shouldn’t be craft custom however “inventive consciousness.”

Mayhew’s exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is titled “Inner Terrain.” When he paints, he describes himself as going right into a trance. He asserts that his work usually are not landscapes however “mindscapes” — locations solely imagined or remembered. While some are titled after particular locations (“Monterey Bay” or “Montauk”), Mayhew stated that he does that “just to give them some identity.” He may simply as nicely name it “Wednesday,” he stated — then confirmed me a portray, on an easel in his garage-studio, titled precisely that.

It is tempting to attempt to detect in Mayhew’s hazy, peaceable landscapes an occluded echo of this nation’s historical past of slavery, and the relationship of Black and brown employees to the land. In previous titles he has referred to the “40 acres and a mule” that was promised in reparations to freed slaves throughout Reconstruction; in a single interview he described visiting a former plantation in Louisiana, and pondering the darkish secrets and techniques of its panorama.

However, he informed me he’s merely dedicated to paint, optics and phantasm. Like the late Nineteenth-century Tonalist painters (George Innes is a specific affect) he makes use of coloration to conjure house, though he has a perverse predilection for making backgrounds pop ahead and foregrounds recede.

“When I was studying in Florence,” he stated, “I learned that the mind doesn’t know what the eye is seeing.” In 1960, along with his first spouse, Dorothy, and their kids Ina and Scott, Mayhew decamped to Italy, the place he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. His finest pal at the time was Nelson Shanks, the Classical Realist portrait painter, with whom he visited museums all through Europe.

The sojourn taught him, he stated, that inventive sensibility “has nothing to do with ethnicity or any particular culture.” He contends that “creative consciousness” (a time period he makes use of typically) was what the members of Spiral had been actually concerned with, greater than points tied to race.

Mayhew turned acknowledged as a radical trainer, pushing an interdisciplinary curriculum — one which some artwork departments weren’t prepared for. Teaching at Sonoma State University in the Seventies, he constructed along with his college students a large plastic bubble, inflated by a field fan, during which he performed courses, inviting dancers and musicians to carry out inside it and scientists to measure the reverberations on its pores and skin.

Mayhew’s accomplishments are actually inspiring youthful artists of coloration. The 38-year-old African American painter Kajahl, who lives close to Mayhew in Santa Cruz, will curate the exhibition in Sonoma with Shelby Graham. He first met Mayhew whereas in highschool, by a safety guard who seen his artwork. Kajahl has since change into one thing of an acolyte. “I came up in a time when artists felt so incentivized to push politics or notions of their collective identity,” he stated. “I find it refreshing that his work isn’t about any of that.”

Rosemary, his spouse, informed me that he tends to not dwell on the hardships he has endured, the discrimination he confronted. She guesses that this is perhaps a type of self-protection. “I didn’t have struggles!” he protested to her just lately, pointing to the willingness of galleries to indicate his work.

“We did struggle,” stated Ina, Mayhew’s daughter, a manufacturing designer for movie and tv. “There were always financial issues, we moved a lot, he taught at a number of schools. He had galleries, but we did not live off the sale of his paintings.” Some collectors, she stated, didn’t even know Mayhew was not white. “When he got accepted to the National Academy of Design, they didn’t know he was Black until he showed up!”

There have been many artists of coloration who’ve had not solely to suppose exterior the field however to invent a completely new field for themselves. Despite his outwardly conventional material, there isn’t any artist fairly like Richard Mayhew. As Rosemary places it, “I think Rick figured out what he needed to do to survive.”

Richard Mayhew: Natural Order

Through June 17, Venus Over Manhattan, 39 Great Jones Street, NoHo;

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