Turning the natural world on its side

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The notion of a path through life—either taken or not taken—is one of the most powerful recurring themes in art, and one that seems particularly relevant in a new exhibit at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Gallery of paintings by Richard Mayhew, whose colorful, inventive, imaginary landscapes have defied the art world’s classifications for generations.

“Transcendental Landscapes” is a vivid series of oil and watercolor pastoral scenes, many with winding roads beckoning the viewer further into the depths of the paintings’ dreamscape, The scenes are drawn from the imagination of an artist whose career has spanned an early life as a jazz singer and medical illustrator, involvement in a seminal group of artists who helped define African-American art during the Civil Rights era and six cross-country trips from New York to California to document the changing American landscape.

Mr. Mayhew, who is of both Native American and African-American descent, will give a lecture on his work at a kickoff celebration of Black History Month at the college on the evening of Saturday, January 31.

Now 84 years old, Mr. Mayhew was raised in Amityville, though he said in a recent interview that his grandfather had lived on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton.

His mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent, and he had always believed his father was part Shinnecock. But in the course of researching the exhibit, co-curator Marc Fasanella said that he has found that Mr. Mayhew was likely descended from Chief John Mayhew of the Unkechaug tribe in western Suffolk County.

“The nuance is understandable,” said Shinnecock historian John Strong, who has been helping to research the exhibit. “Unkechaug and Shinnecock have been marrying for years. He has kinship ties with both groups, but residency plays a role in tribal identity over time.”

Regardless of his true lineage, Mr. Mayhew credited the Native American reverence for the land passed down to him by his grandmother as one of his primary influences as a landscape painter.

Mr. Mayhew said this week that he didn’t begin painting landscapes exclusively until many years after he had achieved success as a portrait and figurative painter, after studying at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with the likes of Edwin Dickinson, Hans Hofmann and Max Beckmann in the late 1940s and living for years in Europe, where he reveled in the reverence that Europeans had for artists.

Though the landscapes are abstract enough that they could have been painted anywhere, they seem uniquely American in their regard for broad vistas and untamed wilderness. Though Mr. Mayhew cites artists of the Hudson River school as his initial inspiration and had initially done plein air paintings, his recent pieces, based on imaginary and nearly abstract landscapes, defy classification.

“They’re based on my cultural background and based on the sensitivity of nature and mood space,” he said. “I’m always seeking that sensitive feeling of time-space in nature, at different times of day, in different structural settings.”

Mr. Mayhew, who now lives in Soquel, California, got some of the inspiration for his paintings from that state’s vast expanses of forests, deserts, mountains and rivers, but he’s equally drawn to the deserts of New Mexico, the fields of Pennsylvania and the seaside of his home on Long Island.

“Each area has another kind of spooky mood space,” he said, adding that he was delighted when he once walked past two women who were looking at his paintings in a gallery.

“One woman said ‘that’s definitely Scotland’ and the other said, ‘no, that’s definitely Oregon.’ Everyone brings their own experience to it,” he said.

Mr. Fasanella, who is curating the show along with Mikaela Sardo Lamarche of the ACA Galleries in New York City, said that people who have seen the exhibit at the Avram Gallery have visceral reactions to the paintings.

“People may love one and hate others,” he said. “They really are transcendental landscapes. They really have this emotional appeal, a seductive naturalism.”

Mr. Mayhew attributes the vivid colors of his landscapes to his heritage.

“The color is part of sensitivity of both cultures,” he said. “If you see the costumes of Native Americans, and in Africa there’s a lot of color, but that’s just reflecting nature.”

He also said that ideas about land rights, a political undercurrent in his work, represent an element that both of his heritages have in common.

“The notion of 40 acres and a mule and the lands African-Americans never received; I’m very sensitive to that sensitivity,” he said. “African-Americans have made an incredible stride from slavery to the president of the United States, really the president of the world, but Native Americans have been completely left out.”

In 1963, Mr. Mayhew was one of the founding members of a group of African-American artists known as “The Spiral Group.”

The group, which included the artists Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff and Norman Lewis, focused on what role art should play to help the United States become more multicultural.

“They were involved with almost predicting and anticipating this entire era,” he said. “Ralph Ellison was involved with creating the consciousness of that group; Al Murray, James Baldwin. They were real intellectual people involved with evaluating and anticipating that this country would become multicultural in 50 years. They had no idea how much their prediction would come true.”

Mr. Mayhew had long seen the improvisational nature of jazz as part of his inspiration, but he now finds that jazz music brings back too many memories for him not to associate it with experiences he’s already had.

“I’m an abstract expressionist, really,” he said. “I listen to all kinds of music while painting. I used to be a jazz singer, but I stopped listening to jazz because it becomes very nostalgic. I started listening to classical music because it’s more abstract. It doesn’t define moments for me.”

He believes that his stubborn desire to defy classification has helped him to continue to grow as an artist. Though he is an equally capable figurative painter, he will not include figures in his landscapes, in part because he believes they will force viewers to define the paintings in terms that are not related to dreams and mood.

“I had one painting titled ‘40 Acres and a Mule’ and someone asked me ‘why didn’t you put a mule in there?’” he said. “I said, ‘it’s there, behind that bush.’”

“If you’re constantly involved with the challenge of creative existence, well, nature is always renewing itself,” he said. “The creative world is a sensitive world to live in. It’s very elusive. If you become dishonest, everyone knows. If you compromise your values, your peers know right away.”

Mr. Mayhew’s lecture, which starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday night, will be preceded by a Black History Month buffet presented by the Faculty Student Association at 5 p.m. A performance by the Galilee Ensemble Gospel Choir will be held at 7:45 p.m., followed by a screening of the award-winning Denzel Washington film, “The Great Debaters,” about an African-American debate team that won at a Harvard competition in the 1930s. The film will be shown in the Avram Theater at 8:30 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10. For more information, call exhibit coordinator Marc Fasanella at 632-5104.

Mr. Mayhew’s exhibit will be on display at the Avram Gallery Thursdays through Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m., and by appointment, through March 21.

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