Keith Mayerson"You filter through your brain, your unconscious, your conscious and with the flick of your hand, you record things you can't quantify in words."
Coming to art by way of comics, Keith Mayerson has maintained a special position in both fields. His groundbreaking graphic novel, made in collaboration with Dennis Cooper, is immediately distinct in it’s manic style and non-pc content, existing today as an anomaly in both independent and queer comics alike. Since Horror Hospital Mayerson’s output has taken place mostly in the art world, expanding the formal parameters of comics to the gallery wall, and exploring the communicative potential of figurative painting. A teacher at heart, Mayerson approach is a generous one, as a sincere believer of the transformative power of art, both for the artist and the viewer.
Most kids go through a comic book phase. What was it about comics that stuck with you?
I grew up in Colorado and had very little access to fine art. My access to art was through comics. My dad brought home magazines with comics like The New Yorker. I loved superhero comics, underground comics… From elementary school on I did comics for the school paper. I was the cartoon guy.
Was it easy to access Underground Comics in Colorado?
I grew up in cul-de-sac suburbia of Denver, so it was pretty white bread. To not feel like a robot, my friends and I would go downtown. There were some great places. A record store called Wax Trax. An all ages club called the Mercury Café... I saw Black Flag and X there. Then there was Mile High Comics, a a great comic book store. I loved the corner with the underground stuff. I was also into Mad Magazine… do you know the history of Mad Magazine?
In the 1950’s, this populist German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wrertham (sort of like the “Doctor Phil” of the McCarthy era) came up with this infamous pamphlet called the Seduction of the Innocent. It was about how comics turn kids into juvenile delinquents by being too horrific, strange, and violent. Before this time there were comics for everybody in America: romance comics for women, war comics for soldiers, horror comics like Crypt of Terror. The comics code authority closed out this spectrum and made everything about good versus evil: guys in tights battling Nazis. Entertaining Comics (EC), one of the great comic companies of that time, stopped publishing their pulpy comics in order to stay alive. In its stead they started Mad Magazine. Mad superseded the comics code by being a magazine and by not running ads. They lampooned all the things that repressed the original EC writers and artists. They made fun of movies, advertising, authority figures, etc. A lot of the people who grew up to be underground cartoonists were inspired by early Mad.
I read that when you were 15 you went to France and you bought a ton of foreign comics.
It was revelatory. They really appreciated what comics could be as an art form in France. Comics were even published as beautiful hardback books.
So you started making your own comics.
For people to read my comic and tell me their thoughts was meaningful to me. I didn't realize I could do art for a living. Comics seemed like the best way to express myself. I got hooked.
Did you paint in high school as well?
Although I drew and made art since I could hold a pencil, I didn't start painting until college. I was a studio art major who ended up a semiotics major. I took a lot of theater classes wrote and directed plays and other creative writing. I felt it would all help my comics.
Pinocchio the Big Fag, 1993, mixed media on film cel, 22 x 30"
Were there classes about comics at Brown?
No, not at all.
The illustration department at RISD was probably the closest thing.
I took Chris Van Allsburg's illustration class at RISD.
The guy who did Jumanji?
What was he like as a teacher?
I remember he would say, "we're doing a still life today… does everybody know what a still life is?" I thought that was weirdly pedantic. But he ultimately was great, and I still teach my students things he taught me back then.
What happened after you graduated?
I came to New York to be a cartoonist, thinking this would be a good way to pay for painting and writing. I submitted 10 cartoons a week to The New Yorker. At the same time I got a front desk job at Robert Miller when Cheim & Read were the directors. Through this exposure to art I realized that I could have greater freedom in art than with comics. My heart belonged to comics but I wasn't interested in panel to panel transitions, I just wanted to make images. I realized at their core, comics were about bringing up ideas aesthetically, which is also true for any great art. Inspired by Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and other dynamic Southern California artists, I went back to graduate school at UC Irvine in Orange County.
That is where you did your show Pinocchio: Pinocchio the Big Fag. What was the story with that show?
It was as if a gay collector collected all these parallel universe images of Pinocchio. I would choose a New Yorker style for one image, or a psychedelic style for another. Pinocchio was a breakthrough in that I realized I could take the same sensibility for creating panel-to-panel narratives to fine art exhibitions, where each image, while hopefully standing on its own, could, juxtaposed with other images, create a larger narrative like a comic on a wall. At the same time it would leave more room for interpretation by the viewer to create relationships between images.
How did Horror Hospital Happen?
I moved to LA after graduation and hung out with the writer Dennis Cooper. Dennis asked me to do Horror Hospital, which was based on one of his short stories. I thought it would be appropriate to continue the sensibility from Pinocchio of choosing style to fit content, and explore what queer could be outside of the symbolic order.
How did you see Horror Hospital in terms of the trajectory of queer comics?
I still think Horror Hospital is one of the first queer comics that spoke about sexual orientation, but it's also one of the first comics that dealt with being queer in terms of not fitting into a mold of what a comic or graphic novel could be. “Queer” as a term for me came about with Eve Sedgwick, a straight woman with cancer who had to have a double mastectomy and lost all of her hair from chemo. She realized she didn't fit into the symbolic order of what it was to be a woman at that time. She liked the idea of re-coding the term queer because she wasn't in the heterosexual matrix of what it is to be a “woman”—the idea of queer as being an alternate idea of being gay, which gave me the freedom not to follow any sort of trajectory. This applies to the characters in Horror Hospital, but is true for the structure of the book itself.
It says on the cover that it's made in collaboration.
Dennis Cooper wrote an initial script for the first chapter. In the spirit of how MAD artists worked with Harvey Kurtzman who wrote most of those early scripts, I was like a movie director working with a writer. I could draw it my own way, create the look of the characters and environments, and add interjections, visual scenes, etc., that weren’t denoted in the script. Dennis was jazzed when I brought the artwork back to him, and wrote the second chapter and then returned it to me. It was chapter for chapter.
It reads almost like a site of discovery
Through the years I worked on and off with it, it did take on a life of its own, for better or worse. Even doing the new cover for the second edition seventeen years later, I sutured into that energy.
Was Horror Hospital your first graphic novel really?
It's sort of my first and only… But I continue the tradition of storytelling with each of my art exhibitions, which most often are installations of images that create larger narratives. I often design and plan my shows to tell non-linear stories, but like a comic, seen in context in a series, the viewer creates the ultimate content as they experience how the paintings and drawings relate to one another.
You’ve spoken about how McCloud’s book about comics is a major inspiration.
It's still my bible. I still teach it to all my students. When I asked him if he knew how close it was to semiotics, he said yes, but liked to keep it about comics. It is really about the power of icons and ideas of closure—where the viewer ultimately completes the concept of content as they read “between the panels” of a comic. He discusses various ways that styles can affect content and accessibility; something rendered simply like Snoopy might be more relatable than something more subjectively rendered, like Prince Valiant.
Your early drawings really jump around in terms of style—sometimes it’s anime, and sometimes it’s like a German expressionist. The funny thing is I can always tell it’s your drawing.
Picasso said imperfection is your style—whether drawing a circle without the aid of a compass or copying the old masters. That was an epiphany for me. Before, I would choose specifically to render something in a style to be able to access that style’s content but this began to feel like art direction. I believe there is something to an artist signature—we can make images that are content-rich and about something, our conscious and unconscious minds creating a work that has a life of its own beyond language.
Your more recent work is more consistent.
I have weaned myself away from consciously appropriating styles for their content, and try to paint images the best way I can. In this way the style is realized unconsciously. For me holding a brush is very primal. Oil paint was created to make things look real, but I think it can make emotions and feelings real and palpable. You filter through your brain, your unconscious, your conscious and with the flick of your hand, you record things you can't quantify in words. With rendering from images with painting and drawing, how it doesn’t resemble exactly the image you might have been looking at is perhaps what is "you" about your resulting picture.
You also paint found images of celebrities.
I used to cast famous icons as characters for my narratives. Now if I paint someone well known, I choose very specifically how they not only fit into the larger themes and ideas I want to present, but also try to capture their spirit, in addition to the allegorical meaning of their image. Speaking through the power of the icon is something I still think about a lot. An icon can be like the “happy face”—it is so simply rendered that people can relate to it and perhaps “have a nice day” too. With Tibetan Thangka painting, one was supposed to meditate on the simply, perfectly rendered entity, and “become” them. In ancient China, monks would transcend in a state of maw to “become” the iconic pilgrims and fishermen they were drawing so their viewers might do the same. With celebrities, you can speak through that iconographic person that people relate to, as well as the issues surrounding that person. It’s not just a portrait, but a portrait of how they stand in for larger ideas in culture. I also love the Beatles because they always spoke through avatars. “Hey Jude” wasn’t “Hey Jules”, when McCartney wrote it to comfort Lennon’s son during his parent’s divorce—he chose to remove it from reality to make it more safe and relatable. Lately, I have been inspired to paint people from my own life, something I was inspired in part from, post-Beatles, how John Lennon and Yoko went even further and created music with themselves as characters. It makes one care and relate to the personal experiences of these two figures—those emotions are real because they come from their concrete world.