by Bridget Quinn
There’s a trope sometimes flung around on t-shirts and bumper stickers, and on the boards of non-profits, about art wielding a certain kind of power. We like to believe, or say that we believe, in art’s ability to save lives. Even to change the world. But let’s be honest, no painting has ever stopped a single bullet; art hasn’t ended any wars.
Just a few days after the terrible eruption of bloodshed in Israel and Gaza, I went to see Richard Mayhew: Inner Terrain at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. It was a pretty drive between elegant vineyards and gentle hills, everything shimmering in golden autumnal light, and it felt uncomfortable, even wrong, to feel pleasure in such beauty. What’s the point of looking at art in a time of terror, much less the point of art criticism?
And yet there I was, entering galleries filled with many decades of work by a 99-year-old artist who is still active in his studio. Mayhew’s Inner Terrain paintings span from the 1950s to within the past two years, a near lifetime of work evincing remarkable consistency: landscape after landscape fashioned of vivid, saturated color so electric they almost vibrate with internal energy against the wall. That so many canvases over many decades can share so much without repetition of color or form (these are no Monet haystacks merely capturing varied light) makes sense when their source is made apparent. While the low hills and spreading trees of Mayhew’s paintings look very much like the ones I passed on my way to the SVMA, and Mayhew is a California artist who has lived and worked in Santa Cruz for the past thirty years, his landscapes are not done locally en plein air or from photographs. They are – as the show’s title implies – landscapes of his inner life, a depiction springing from what Mayhew calls “creative consciousness.” It’s an almost spiritual idea, the visualization of some unifying force through nature and beyond, and it’s one Mayhew explicitly credits to his Black and Native ancestry, while also recognizing his connection to 19th-century Tonalist painters like George Inness. “I was influenced by Innes,” Mayhew once told Amon Carter Museum of American Art Director Andrew Walker, “because of the mystery in his paintings.” While one of the earliest pieces of Inner Terrain, Mayhew’s New Hampshire Valley (1955-1965) might even be mistaken for an Innis, his signature style more deeply embraces the mystery, taking color from coolly observed depictions of the outer world to passionate conjuring of an inner one.
While Mayhew’s paintings share much with American Tonalist landscapes, they’re in conversation with the history of western painting more broadly. The first pieces in the show have gold frames reminiscent of Byzantine and Medieval art, telegraphing a reality beyond this one, depictions of another world. And, as noted in a wall label, Mayhew’s work reflects “the extravagance of Baroque landscapes, the light-filled views of Impressionism and plein-air paintings, the bold, wild gestures of Abstract Expressionism, and the spiritual magnetism of Color Field painting.” To that seemingly comprehensive list, I would add the ur-Expressionism of Edvard Munch, who wrote, “Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye… it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.” In his “mindscapes,” as Mayhew calls his paintings, the artist seeks to capture his emotional response to nature rather than an optical one.
Mayhew is both inside and outside of the history of Western art as it has traditionally been understood: an inevitable cascade of cause-and-effect from one art movement to another that leads … where? Well, what seems not so long ago, it was thought to lead to ever-greater abstraction and the eventual death of painting. Such belief was wrongheaded and premature, of course, as the popular recent Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the de Young Museum amply demonstrates. But while portraiture like Wiley’s has found its way back into “serious” painting, landscape is embraced far less easily or often in contemporary art.
Mayhew is already, incontrovertibly, part of art history. A founding member of the Black art collective, Spiral, created in 1963 after the March on Washington, Mayhew helped develop the ethos that drove the group’s art and ideas. But while much art of that time – including by Spiral artists – met the fight for civil rights head-on, with protest and activism, Mayhew took a different route. Then and now, he pursues calm and stillness in his work in response to the turmoil of current events. That calm, however, can also have social justice implications. “My mindscapes are also about the healing of the long trauma that Black and Native communities have experienced collectively,” Mayhew told Walker.
None of this would be possible without Mayhew’s profound understanding of color theory and art history. In 1960, for example, he studied at the Accademia de Belle Arti in Florence, where he learned about color firsthand from the likes of Caravaggio. But while he is utterly conversant with the traditions of Western art, Mayhew is doing something quite different from contemporary artists like Wiley. Rather than sampling art of the past, he’s inhabiting the world of his present consciousness, which includes that past and much more. Traditional landscape meets the artist’s inner eye. Mayhew’s vibrating canvases, as vivified in sky and branch as any van Gogh, are, in one sense, the ultimate activism: a refusal to bend to adversity, to acknowledge the gulf of grief in the world, both personal and political, and to instead capture a rich and thriving inner life. It’s science fiction and science fact, these mindscapes of his art. And it’s a recovery of landscape for contemporary painting the way the portrait has been resuscitated in recent years.
Mayhew has said, “All my paintings are based on emotion. I actually use landscape as a metaphor for the feeling of time and illusion.” I’m reminded of Goethe’s idea that “colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” Richard Mayhew: Inner Terrain wields color – the deeds and suffering of light – as a talisman against a dark and seemingly doomed time. Mayhew’s longevity as a Black and Native man and powerful artist and teacher offers an overwhelming sense of reassurance, of hope in hard times. I’m tempted to write that his work refutes terror, even tragedy, but I’m not sure painting can do that. Which is not to say they are small gestures, such paintings. They are the best of what it means to be human. To experience the pain and injustice of the world, acknowledge it, endure it, and love it anyway. Mayhew, without a whiff of the saccharine or sentimental, opposes trauma with transcendence. His protest is a kind of oppositional beauty—the small but essential triumph of art over despair.
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Richard Mayhew: “Inner Terrain” @ Sonoma Valley Museum of Art through January 7, 2024.
About the author: Bridget Quinn is author of the books Broad Strokes and She Votes, both about women’s history and art. She’s a regular contributor to Hyperallergic and a sought-after speaker on women and art. Her next book, Portrait of a Woman: Art, Rivalry & Revolution in the Life Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, is forthcoming in April 2024 from Chronicle Books.