Gustave Caillebotte ‘s famous “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, is an iconic painting of 19th Century Paris. Created at the start of the Parisian boulevard system, the painting depicts a number of middle-class Parisians strolling beneath umbrellas along large, open boulevards. University of Berkeley Art Historian T. J. Clark suggests the painting depicts the artificial landscape of Haussman’s new Paris, unfamiliar to its residents now segregated and sectioned off into quartiersaccording to class and monetary position. Thus, Parisians who used to mingle and merge with tips of the hat and friendly greetings regardless of society now inhabit cleansed but cold environments walking about in a state not unlike a semi-paranoia. Layne Meacham’s trompe l’oeil paintings of the world as seen when the gaze is cast downward suggest something similar. His new paintings, many of which are on exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery beginning January 17th, bring to the viewers’ gaze what the modern passerby ceases to see, lost in their utilitarian objective of getting from point A to point B.
“Golds Gym on Van Winkle, Salt Lake City, Utah,” one of these new works, is a startling painting. It appears to be one large slab of concrete, giving the impression that its weight will cause it to tear from the wall and topple over at any moment. For years now Meacham has experimented with layered textures and surfaces, and in these new works has recreated the visual consistency and the tactility of concrete on a two-dimensional surface — without the work crashing to the ground. A pattern of yellow stripes across this “concrete” surface are just what they appear to be – what the average pedestrian has seen countless times in their lives crossing a street at a cross walk or intersection, for caution, perhaps, or for myriad other reasons.
In addition, on this cold gray concrete surface, we see a number of black dots. If one stops at any locale in any city anywhere, one will see them. Does the average pedestrian ever stop to think what they are? Meacham has. They are dried, flattened, lifeless, blackened, useless spots of gum. They are in cities everywhere. You might have even found them on the Paris streets that served as models for Caillebotte’s painting.
Those black spots, nuisances when they first arrive, eyesores after a few tramplings, represent the type of things that go unnoticed every day. Meacham has spent his life with the unseen, the unnoticed, the forgotten, the marginalized. Though he has had a long and prestigious career as one of Utah’s better-known abstractionists — he was professionally trained and continues to work as a social worker. For years he has worked with the downtrodden and the unseen, those whose lives are spent on a park bench, in a doorway, in a shelter, under a bus stop. Meacham is an activist and has been driven by many worthy causes through a career that has had much effect on many. Layne Meacham has never been the type of blinders-on commuter, unresponsive to the small moments happening around him, and it is because of this that his art works so critically and on so many levels. He has an innate passion to create as he is propelled by the lives that he touches and is touched by.
This is not a shy or timid artist, but an energetic, gregarious, enthusiastic and extremely passionate one. One feels this passion, either talking with Meacham, or experiencing the semantic expression of his excitable brush. This passion is seen in his earlier works, expressive studies in paint application and color. A piece like “Moabital Experience III”, painted for the J. Willard Marriott Library, is an introverted work, reminiscent of Clifford Still. One sees into it a man of many sides, an artist of many dimensions who is ultimately open, open to experience and open to life. In exhibition at Finch Lane this month, however, we see a more sober side of the artist as he considers more profoundly and at a level much more universal… starkly so.
Consider “New York Times, 620 8th Ave. NY, NY.” Once again there is the unsettling moment of the concrete trompe l’oeil canvas. Trompe l’oeil is intriguing when it is fruit or birds but when it is a large slab of concrete it can be a bit intimidating. This rendering is also a bit uncanny since it brings into the gallery space the image spray-painted in a neon color in such a distinctive pattern that anyone who has ever walked a few blocks has seen it, though likely not knowing what it is. Coupled with these very familiar yet very alien sprayed signs, appear the black dots. They cannot be avoided.
With Meacham’s professional background and experience in mind, these spots suggest fruitful interpretations. In the concrete we find a void without boundaries, without reason, without comfort, without freedom. In this void are the flattened, useless spots of gum. The void can be read as the harsh conditions, the “out there” that the mentally ill, with no sense of reason or the disenfranchised with no hope of “fitting in,” find themselves in. It is an ugly, unfriendly world that offers little real hope. Sadly, the dots represent these individuals whose lives too often come to this very state and too often end up in waste. The pink undecipherable, unfamiliar signs signify “society,” something everyone knows is there but something no one knows precisely what it is. It is often something useless to help those who truly need to be helped.
These individuals, the type Meacham works with on a daily basis, are essentially the fabric of this body of work, the soul of the artist that composes such seemingly sterile images of concrete, symbols and residue. They represent his inner heartstrings.
Meacham’s professional work, especially with the mentally ill, and his artistic practice are both rooted in semiotics, in the study of meaning and how this is communicated. It is the essential bridge between the meanings passed between the sociologist and patient and the artist and his work and the two are married in this body of work in the most astute kind of approach.
“116th Street and Broadway NY, NY,” is a masterpiece of semiotic play, once again taking place in the cold and harsh cement, a no man’s land of heartlessness and emptiness where no one is at home. A mash of numbers and letters — an “x” and an indecipherable sign out of our range of comprehension — offer us no link to any meaningful context. But what is meaning when there is no meaning? Chaos, ignorance, delusion, irrationality, fear, darkness and absence…
We now walk unchartered territory. We now walk the ground of the mentally ill and the marginalized. For the mentally ill and the non-medicated, a sign as familiar as a stop sign has no sense of reason, time may not exist, place becomes irrelevant, past, present and future blend together as one and all are equally dark and terrifying and all are equally hopeless and lonely and these innocents are left to suffer total incomprehensibility by the “they.”
The viewer, for a moment, with the illusion of trompe l’oeil and total irrationality before their eyes, might get a taste, a sampling — though not the full measure – of the emotions of the mentally-ill mind: the fear of not knowing, confusion, disorder, a feeling of uncanny foreboding, and total isolation. In a too-busy world they are the unnoticed remnants beneath our feet. These pieces take the unseen and put them straight in the viewers’ gaze, and the works hover over the viewer with the very weight of the issues they address.
Layne Meacham’s work organically synthesizes with the inner workings of his very complex core self while he strives to do more to help the mentally ill and the marginalized. In the process of these acts of goodness, the art he creates is loaded work that reads indefinitely about the subjects true to his passion.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.