THE ART OF THE DECEPTIVELY UNCOMPLICATED HIDDEN DEPTHS
Written by Augustus Britton | Photography by Jonathan Chu
Thank god for people like Jake Kean Mayman. Just when I thought all hope was lost, just when I thought the bleak vortex of social media had taken its hold on the throat of all and surreptitiously crowned the illiterati as new rulers of the world, I meet someone like Jake Kean Mayman. Thank god for Mayman. He’s part rabid, obsessive contemporary and historic news headline junkie, part conspiracy theorist (my claim, not his). He’s handsome, he’s generous, he’s singularly intelligent, he’s also, and maybe most importantly, a gifted and committed painter.
“Watch your head,” he says, guiding me into his studio, which looks like an elfish hovel. The ceilings are low. The floor is carpeted and daubed with oil paints. “Yeah, the carpet is funny,” he says. The studio sits behind a quintessential Los Angeles pad, one that is littered with cookbooks, stark white walls, sleek furniture, succulents outside and on a palm-tree-lined street.
Mayman stands there, in front of a group of paintings that will be shipped off for a show at Night Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, with an opening date of March 18. He immediately begins talking politics, the majority of it I can’t understand or can’t follow. At times I feel like I’m being conned. The knowledge of foreign policy, the bizarreness of the Cold War, the patterns made by the nukes dropped on the Bikini Atoll, the feverish research into space exploration, climate change—all of it seems strange coming from a painter with his technical skill; it almost seems unnecessary. Then he points to a painting of a leaf, a large, dangling elephant ear gorgeously rendered. “This leaf piece is discussing the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, which was the first ever global meeting of world leaders specifically dealing with environmental issues.”
“I think what you’re doing is honorable, Jake,” I tell him, sincerely, referring to the amount of gently veiled political commentary imbued in his work.
“I’m not trying to be honorable,” Mayman says, sitting down. “There is an existential crisis as an artist: What good am I doing in the world? And not that I’m trying to change the world, but am I opening people’s minds in any way?” He raises a hand and talks like a mixture of Jerry Maguire and David Foster Wallace. “What do I paint? Why do I paint it? How much do I pay attention to the market? How much do I pay attention to academia? Do I do this just for me or do I do it for other people?”
“A combination. When I read the news now, I get concerned about things and fret about things and our future. I want the audience to ask questions, I want them to be curious, and that is what I’m feeling. I’m questioning everything, and I’m curious about everything and with the end result of getting a better understanding of where we’re at now. I think it comes back to the issue of what am I'm trying to do with art."
And we begin staring at a landscape—or a sort of trompe l’oeil version of one (an effect Mayman is keenly aware of). It’s an image of an image of a landscape, a trick smacking of Ed Ruscha along with being accompanied by one of those SoCal gradations in the background made by the sun setting. It’s a kind of “movie poster” of a landscape, as Mayman called it, complete with small nicks and rips and tears in and around its surface, as if someone had stepped into the canvas and hung this thing there, forgetting they left the old-school ladder leaning against it. “There is a parallel anxiety or intertwining anxiety with all this work that is the anxiety and fears that play out in my studio process.”
Mayman is excitedly referring to how to make “not just another landscape.” To do this, he adds his signature rendered-out blue tape to the painting, leaving me observing it with a kind of head-cocked peculiarity running across my eyes, in that moment, suddenly noticing these other small illusions, or painterly puns on the canvas, like the couple of blank pages drawn at life-size scale, not adding up with the visage of river and landscape behind it. Mayman explains that “at a certain point I realized that to render out a narrative object would be just too direct for people, and for my sake, compositionally, I got so used to it that it seemed fitting to put it in...”
Too direct for him maybe. You see, after speaking with Mayman, I realize he is hooked on facts, but he’s also quite possibly hooked on subversion as well as the twisting river of time that helps reach those facts. His work is a veritable trail of breadcrumbs as to how he went about making it. “I can basically keep painting these forever, the only reason they’re going to have to be done is that the gallery has to take them out. But in my ideal heavenly world, I would only work on one or two paintings a year and just go full in crazy detail on them.”
And that particular landscape I just referenced is a riff off the current opening to Disney movies. Again, if you take Mayman’s paintings at face value, you might be cheating yourself—although it could be argued that the political commentary isn’t necessary. Like I said, because Mayman’s use of color is so rich, so vibrant, so inviting, you can’t help but have positive chemicals bubble up inside you upon viewing. “This is based on the opening sequence of all the Disney movies now. When I was growing up, it was this simple blue background with this white drawing over it; now it’s this complex 3-D animation, where you start in the clouds and you pan back and naturally it is a pretty dark image; it’s bizarre to have it opening up these joyful Disney movies. It seems morbid, and eventually the castle spire comes into view. ...”
"[Mayman's] work is a veritable trail of breadcrumbs as to how he went about making it."
Mayman has collected a lot of his theories from working as an assistant to critically acclaimed painter Raymond Pettibon. “He is a very prolific history buff, and it comes out in his work, and I think I picked up a lot of that. ... He’s very antiauthoritarian, and I don’t want to say I’m antiauthoritarian, but I definitely question, and I was fed a lot of knowledge just listening to him. There were books sitting around everywhere, and he would go on rants. But, again, with some things, I would say, ‘This is a crazy conspiracy theory, Raymond.’ And other things I was like, ‘Whoa.’ And I would go home and verify it.”
Mayman has a real take on life; I venture to say something like, what’s really going on here? He’s decisive; his work is inspiring, its also relaxing— never mind that the show is titled The Earth Dies Screaming. It sets a tone, it keeps it real, it keeps it native, not forgetting the past, respecting the future and paying homage to where we’re at right now.
It’s funny to think about the little corners of the world that we rarely see. Who knew someone like Mayman was back there in that nutty professor lab of oil paint off the alley in Venice, Calif., making these images—Mayman concocting visions of how life ought to be, revealing secrets to himself, a meditation on what it all means to be on this rock. MM