“Capybara Walls and Painting with the Emotionally Ill” is the “tongue-in-cheek” working title for Layne Mecham’s upcoming show at Palmers Gallery, January 19 through February 9, 2007 (Capybara Walls is the gallery title).
Mecham is a first class abstract expressionist, a paint slinger who attacks the canvas with his fingers, hands, elbows, sticks, dried-up old paint brushes, screwdrivers, bricks . . . literally anything that happens to be close at hand when he is in the “zone.” When executing his usually large, heavily textured, paint-encrusted canvases, Meacham stands on the built up masses of the collective history of modern abstract art, “from Kandinsky to the New York School,” as well as what was going on in France with Dubuffet’s incursions into Art Brut and the Art of the Insane.
Marks and gesture are the essential ingredients in a Meacham painting, built upon a dense surface structure. He creates a thick impasto for several reasons, primarily so he can incise his marks into it. He is also fascinated by built-up layers, like old public walls which have evolved over time with layer upon layer of cultural “marks” that are then slowly revealed by the passage of time. After Meacham has created the background and some of the images are placed, he sits in front of the canvas and stares at it until the inspiration strikes; he then walks over to the easel, picks up something and makes a mark with it. He doesn’t care much what it is he picks up (he used to have a huge piece of graphite he got at Phillips Gallery, which he called his “heathen” stone because of the crude looking marks he could make it), almost anything close at hand will do. Then he sits back down and stares. The process is repeated over and over again until the entire surface is filled up to his satisfaction and the composition is complete.
Looking at “Spawn Ceremony,” a recent quintessential Meacham work, the viewer sees a number of unrelated abstract images floating disembodied and ungrounded on a richly textured background. The glue that holds the images together is the overall composition. The thing that fascinates the viewer is that you just don’t know what it is, or what it’s supposed to be. Every viewer will see something different every time they look at it. This is what Meacham calls “the non-boring aspect.” It creates a mood and has a certain tension and feeling of uncertainty. Like a collection of dreamscape images, the whole canvas is covered with varying shades of changing background colors, textures and marks.
Meacham’s philosophy regarding art is the result of his life experiences and struggles. “Since an early adolescence which was fraught with stress, my only real and complete redemption from the catastrophic consequences of boredom has been, and always will be, to make art,” Meacham says. “Of course I also do it for all the cliché classical psychological reasons: art-making acts as a release valve for neurosis and so on.” I consider Mecham to be a creative genius, and he should, by all rights, be producing art full time and commanding high prices for it. Instead, his path has been one of constant struggle. Nothing has come easy, and he has had very few breaks.
Meacham started painting during Jr. High School, under the tutelage of David Chaplin. He also studied at the Art Barn, where he was introduced to the work of the local heavy-hitters, Deffebach, Olson and Snow; “I did great Deffebach/DeKooning/Olson/Snow knock-offs for years,” Meacham says. “Now days I hope that I don’t mimic these art icons, and I appropriate from all of them and Picasso, Debeinkorn and Kandinsky as little as possible. I believe that I have evolved pretty much into a less derivative Meacham style, which I try to keep as spontaneous, unplanned and immediate as possible.”
After dropping out of high school to paint full time, Meacham enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, a ploy to help him finish high school, and subsequently served a tour of duty in Vietnam. Upon returning to the “world,” Meacham studied still life and figure drawing at Westminster College under Don Doxey, followed by art classes at the Art Student’s League in NYC while earning a BA degree from Columbia University. He later received a MSW degree from the U of U, where he also continued his art studies.
“My early paintings were done in 1962-1963; my brother has a number of them because he would give me money enough to buy some supplies, cigs and beer. In the early 70’s and while at grad school at Columbia U in Manhattan, I discovered DeKooning and the New York School and added Kline and DeKooning to the mix of Deffebach, etc.; I had then shifted purely to acrylics to prevent fire hazard and suits from landlords and tree huggers giving me hell for turpentine vapors.”
Meacham married after college and started a family. He continued to practice social work and painted sporadically, as time, money, and the ever-elusive studio space allowed.
“In the 80’s Dolores Chase adopted me and I started to add sheet rock mud, modeling paste and tons of acrylic tube paint, magic markers and raw canvas,” he says. As his work shifted, “losing the feminine touch and Deffebachian flare” he says Chase became somewhat disappointed, but a client’s interest helped fuel the new work. David Dunn, president of the board of IOMEGA and an exclusive client of Chase “dug the new stuff and bought a bunch of them to put in the entry of his $43,000,000.00 condo in LaJolla,” Mecham explains. “Then with the moral support of Rigby, I troweled the stuff on higher and deeper and with even more Home Depot bright colors (I was told by the paint manager who was the former regional sales manager from Reuels Art Supply company that the archival horse shit was overstated, and he explained that Behr paint would last as long as most of the high priced tube acrylics).” The works became larger and thicker and in 2000 he exhibited a group of behemoth 9 foot by 14-foot murals at Left Bank Gallery, some of which have managed to find homes in prominent buildings in Salt Lake.
Meacham is a licensed psychotherapist and has practiced throughout his career. Currently he lives in Logan where he has been conducting art therapy classes with his patients for the past year. His description of his student’s work says a lot about his personal feelings about art and art making.
“Obviously I am not an outsider artist but I am very influenced by what they do as well as what the mentally ill do in their art. I have been working with the seriously and persistently mentally ill (mostly schizophrenic) on a daily basis for the last year. I paint with them in art therapy and also do traditional psychotherapy, so I have been totally immersed in their images and how liberated they are in making art. They do not seek anyone’s permission, judgment or critique, nor do they care. They are liberated from the rules that you can’t juxtapose certain color and shapes. Some of them have protested and tell me that in nature, Mother Nature does not always comply with the U of U art program’s color wheel or balance charts. They are making art for themselves and anyone that is free enough to see the greatness of this work. They do it as another method of communication besides the regular verbal form.”
The group calls themselves the BEYONDERS and attempts to make art without regard to outside critiques. “Their “raw vision” is totally captivating and liberating” Meacham says, “and according to the late Bob Olpin the criteria for great art is, the interesting stuff is, and the boring stuff isn’t…”
Since the early 80’s, Meacham has been “an avid adherent of Jean Dubuffet where in his prototypal outsider manifesto ‘Asphyxiating Culture’ made the case for ‘raw art’ — art that springs from the need for self expression rather than from a desire to imitate (Lee Deffebach or Bill deKooning, Picasso, Diebenkorn, Raphael or anyone else). I champion the art of the mentally ill and outsiders (unschooled isolates) however, I don’t believe that they are the only ones who can channel their creative powers deliberately and directly on to the surface. Artists like Lyle Carbahol and a lot of the new SLC young artists are doing this, besides those that have a serious and persistent mental illness, like those that I work with in Logan as a psychotherapist.”
“However, I have not achieved the confidence in using color, line, shape and gesture to the extent that the severely mentally ill have, and they are teaching me everyday,” says Meacham who notes that he is simply a facilitator/therapist of the group rather than its leader. “It eventually became easy to imitate a DeKooning, but now, it is more and more of a trial to remain honest and hard as hell to knock out an honest Meacham with BEYONDER BLESSINGS. I am heavily relying on my patients to show me the way.”
“My new stuff,” Meacham says of the work to be exhibited at Palmers, “the Capybara Walls series are illustrative of my fascination with South American walls (I did a whole series of assemblage, sheetrock mud and graffiti of Bogotá walls with lots of ‘mud’ and bright colors). These Capybara are 150, even 200-pound Rats that are found in Colombia and Venezuela. I can’t get them out of my mind. The image lingers and lingers and so do the impastoed stucco walls of South America. Maybe the 150-200 pound rats are symbolic of the poor people of South America being abused by the George Bush boy puppet governments set up by Bush, I don’t know. But I have cranked out a few of those images.”
One of Meacham’s new Capybara paintings features two prominent Capybara, and also some rudimentary looking valentine heart shapes placed randomly about. The lines ‘in the heart shapes could be the words, “Meacham” and “Capybara,” for “Meacham loves Capybara.” Meacham certainly has a fascination with the creatures. It seems that he regards them as living metaphors of the human condition. As depicted, they have a gentle innocence about them, and a look of bewilderment — like lost children.
The South American Walls series are very interesting pieces. Meacham removed actual pieces of posters and handbills from public walls in Bogotá during his travels there in 2004. He collaged the paper onto his paintings and they became part of the composition and content. In “Bocadillo,” we see the classic Meacham impasto and use of marks. In the “Walls” series, the marks served to represent graffiti. The bold colors are warm and tropical, and also indicative of the “house paint” the indigenous people used.
“The true test of these paintings will be if they pass muster with the BEYONDERS and the new young cats painting in Salt Lake,” Meacham says in anticipation of the show. “I am not really seeking a lot of validation and support from any of the institutionalized bureaucrats and art police that are put off by my new stuff. I am not painting for them. However those folks seem to look and see if the David Dunn’s of IOMEGA fame are buying my brand of mud, for thousands of dollars, then they all start tweaking their work with a little mud and BEYONDER Philosophy!”
Meacham has an irrepressible spirit and a very strong will. He keeps smiling, laughing and painting regardless of the hardships and trials. He has paid his dues; it’s time for some greater rewards than being “not bored.” Make a point of seeing his new Capybara Walls exhibit at Palmers Gallery, 278 W. Broadway, Suite #3, January 19 – February 9, 2007. Call gallery director Shawn Stradley at 359-4632 for gallery hours and additional information.
Thank you, and happy art making and viewing!
This article originally appeared in the January 2007 edition of 15 Bytes.