John Meyer at Everard Read Johannesburg
by Hazel Friedman
Several years ago, painter John Meyer experienced a low-level epiphany, of sorts. It wasn't one of those 'Saul to Paul' conversions. But for an artist who, since the 1970s has been regarded as one of the leading landscape artists of his generation the shift was equally dramatic. At a time when he could have so easily rested on the laurels of the tried and tested, Meyer took the greatest risk of his career. He began depicting the subcutaneous layers of human interaction and conflict. And judging from the alacritous response to 'Truths Revealed' - his latest show at the Everard Read - the risk has certainly paid off.
This show represents the newest notch on an already heavyweight belt of success. For Meyer, 2007 has been a year of international exposure, with an itinerary that included a showing at the London art fair, solo exhibitions at prestigious galleries in the United Kingdom, offers from Milan and New York and the cementing of an ongoing sponsorship from Stonehage - an international asset management company that manages the money of some of the richest folk on the planet.
It's an eminently suitable threesome: Stonehage with its platinum-chip clientele sponsoring a show at a gallery whose patrons include South Africa's richest rand-gentry; and Meyer whose prices are hitting the half-million mark, and whose iconography is unmistakeably corporate. Although not an overtly political beast, Meyer's imagery is predicated on very specific ideological grounds.
As gallerist Mark Read observes, he is the ultimate 'urban man' endlessly, indeed almost compulsively fascinated with the social interactions that weave a magnetic field of both attraction and repulsion.'
In his preface to the catalogue accompanying Meyer's show, Sean O' Toole describes Meyer's iconography as the 'the industrial middle class'. He draws an analogy with 1940s literary critic Lionel Trilling whose sole foray into novel-writing The Middle of the Journey provided a resonant, quietly detailed examination of America's vanishing intelligentsia during the McCarthy era.
Meyer's milieus are indeed populated by urban warriors: captains of industry and their colleagues, competitors or consorts. His imagery evokes interplay between two highly-charged environments, namely boardrooms and bedrooms. O'Toole also locates analogies between Meyer's imagery and that of crime writer Raymond Chandler, whose finely wrought prose significantly influenced American film noir.
And therein lies Meyer's chief muse: the moving picture. In 2005 Author Brett Hilton-Barber located Meyer's filmic iconography within the genre of cinema verite. But in the more recent 'Truths Revealed' Meyer's imagery falls under more generic filmic categories. The individual narratives are akin to establishing shots. And like movie storyboards they are inextricably linked to the narrative that follows, deriving their power and potential from the friction between their formal qualities and their function within the narrative sequence. Although not 'moving pictures' in the cinematic sense of the word, 'Truths Revealed' evokes responses from the viewer similar to the sensation of sitting in a movie theatre - a response which Meyer deliberately seeks. But they are also freeze-frames of private and public lives, of bedrooms and boardrooms, principally of men in suits and often - whether overt or suggestive - of women between sheets.
But while the meta-narrative might evoke corporate conflict or carnal coupling, the sub-text of 'Truths Revealed' is more about fear, loss, betrayal, regret, alienation and the bitter-sweet polarities of failure and success. In Irrefutable Evidence, for example, Meyer positions two men in ambiguous psychological and physical proximity to one another. They might be colleagues immersed in uncovering evidence of corporate espionage, insider trading or bilking. Alternatively the composition suggests an adversarial interaction - a device which has become one of the hallmarks of Meyer's work.
He has become increasingly adept at establishing dramatic tension by adopting the techniques of the cinematographer in his unfolding narratives of love, loyalty and larceny. The angle of his 'camera' shifts from work to work. In Beyond Doubt, for example, he adopts an aerial perspective which enhances the architectonic space while slightly dwarfing the protagonists. It's a typically filmic device which is used to underscore the dramatic tension and augment the sense of emotional alienation. In The Outsider where the background blurs into an amorphous smudge, one could almost imagine Meyer attempting a focus-pull.
His skill is located in the subtleties of detail - a slightly stooped shoulder in Beyond Doubt, the unexpected intervention of a colour breaking the continuity of otherwise measured, monochromatic hues, for example, in Truths and Awakenings, or the austerity of his production design in which furniture or paintings strategically punctuate the human exchange, as in All I didn't know. These motifs provide subtle, sometimes quirky historical and symbolic reference points, which - like the dramatic exchanges between the characters in the works - shift Meyer's imagery from merely descriptive verisimilitude into a more complex, inner world of truths and lies. It is these details that elevate his work from the realm of painterly prose - work that 'realistically' attempts to describe a world - to that of visual poetry in terms of its ability to create its own reality. And always the twain shall meet.
Meyer's men remind you of the guys in GQ magazine, or movie icons or even those financial services heavyweights with their Armani suits and ties. They seem simultaneously to straddle a contemporary ethos and a bygone age. They are types, not individuals. Something similar can be said of the women who co-star in Meyer's movies.
The only 'individualised' portrait is that of Contessa - named after an Italian countess Meyer met in Italy - whose features serve as a template of sorts for the rest of the women in his work. Contessa is portrayed as an object of desire and hers is the only image in Meyer's recent body of works that verges on the erotic, despite the carnal contexts in which many of his characters are placed.
His depiction of uneasy, existential undertone, staccato tensions and dramatic pause is flawless. But, as was the case with his sumptuous landscapes, Meyer is more adept at depicting distance than intimacy. There is an invisible gauze between painter and protagonists, as though Meyer is reluctant to step up too close and personal. Therein lies the danger of Meyer's imagery becoming too formulaic. But unlike the title of Trilling's novel about the disaffection of the intellectual classes, Meyer has not even reached the middle of his journey. This phase in his oeuvre has really just begun.
Hazel Friedman is a Cape Town-based freelance cultural writer and investigative journalist with Special Assignment. She recently won the 2007 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award
Opened: November 7
Closed: November 25
Everard Read Johannesburg
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