PORTLAND, Maine — Natasha Mayers is a tried and true activist artist. With few exceptions, her art — paintings and murals and the banners she helps create as part of the Artists Rapid Response Team, or ARRT! — is focused on fighting for justice of every kind: racial, social, restorative, environmental — and calling out the bad guys. Her work ranges from the openly polemical and political to brilliant send-ups and witty rejoinders. She can do Leon Golub proud, but also channel Daumier.
In Men in Suits: Paintings by Natasha Mayers at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland (through June 21), the painter continues her mission to speak truth to power, this time inspired by the financial crisis of 2008. Produced over the past four years or so, the 83 undated paintings in the show, all of them acrylic on canvas or board except for two monotypes with acrylic, play variations on the theme of men in suits. These are the corporate overlords who nearly ruined America and received bailouts and bonuses for their misdeeds — the wolves of Wall Street who inspired the Occupy movement.
In Mayers’ paintings, the suits, sometimes lacking heads, occupy everything: the landscape, boardrooms and bedrooms, farms. Their jackets, shirts and especially their ties turn up everywhere. Indeed, part of the appeal of the work in this show is related to the often clever way in which the painter incorporates business attire into the surroundings.
So the rocks in “Well-suited rocks” are, well, well-suited, their craggy shapes sporting the moneymen’s habilement. Likewise, the cliffs that overlook a boat full of abstracted veiled figures in “Refugee women” double as the torsos of the businessmen who traffic in immigrants.
Some of the most memorable pieces in the show are those that incorporate the suits in unusual configurations. In “Rollover,” the bodies of headless suited men follow the contours of a large bed surrounded by black shoes floating in an ambiguous, pinkish space. Mayers has taken that investment trading term and refigured it as a surreal image of brokers rolling over — as if, even in repose, they are playing their financial tricks.
The paintings often take their titles from the lingo of the business world: “Forced arbitration,” “Collusion,” “Underwater options,” and “Venture capitalists (crave scalable activities)” are a few. “Trickle down” shows four headless men in suits pissing what looks like blood.
In “Commodity Traders,” the table around which the faceless market manipulators gather is a farm, with grazing cows — they own the lay of the land. The men in “Corporate tax dodgems” drive those bumper cars one finds in a carnival. A distant relative here: James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888).
Mayers’ work fills up nearly all of the available space in the Maine Jewish Museum, which is housed in the former Etz Chaim Synagogue, a turn-of-the-century immigrant-era house of worship. In some cases she has used doorways, stairwells and other features of the space to set off thematic clusters. For example, nine paintings in one stretch of the entrance hallway revolve around medals and uniforms and the military folks who wear them. The titles help confirm their identity: “Neo-cons,” “War profiteers,” “Medal man.” In “Award ban(k)quet,” three huge medals hang behind a row of stick generals seated at a long table. Some lyrics from Tim Buckley’s late-‘60s anthem “Goodbye and Hello” come to mind: “The vaudeville generals cavort on the stage/And shatter their audience with submachine guns.”
On the basis of several paintings, Mayers would fit nicely into “The Guston Effect” show now at the Steven Zevitas Gallery. It’s not just the figures wearing triangular hoods in “Secret Society” and “Brotherhood” that provoke comparisons, but more generally, perhaps, the clunky—and strangely endearing—stylizations (don’t forget Guston’s Richard Nixon series). A similar connection could be made to Katherine Bradford’s paintings of Superman.
While we’re on aesthetic kinships, the distorted faces in Mayers’ “Secret society,” “Payday lenders at target practice” and several other paintings are reminiscent of Alan Magee’s Xerox collage portraits from the late 1980s of figures and faces that reflect the wages of sin and profit: “Gold Card” (1988), “Disinformation” (1988), and others. The aim is similar: represent mammon in a memorable manner.
At the same time, Mayers’ drive to respond to a specific ill/issue brings to mind Susan Crile’s 2006 series of drawings based on the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, the American-run prison in Baghdad. Crile was compelled, she said, to expose the images “as markers of brutality and viciousness,” using chalk to underscore the fragility of the victims.
Mayers, who lives in Whitefield, Maine, began her campaign to expose these predatory lenders, global pirates and their ilk by inserting them into hundreds of tourist postcards from around the world. These “World Bankster” collages, begun in the years following the recession, are clever and inventive — and are apt to provoke a laugh as much as a sneer. That sense of humor is what sometimes saves Mayers’ pieces from being a simple lash-out diatribe.
Are 83 paintings of men in suits overkill? Remarkably, Mayers maintains a level of outrage — and art —that holds one’s attention. Certainly, a few of these diss-of-the-day paintings might have been culled, if only to give their neighbors more room to make their point, but the dull moments are rare. If Monet could paint a hundred haystacks, who’s to say Ms. Mayers can’t offer 80-plus riffs on men in suits?
More to the point does the suit symbol work? Mayers at times seems to be putting the image through its paces for the sake of carrying the theme, but in the end the business attire seems perfectly tailored, if you’ll excuse the pun, to the painter’s resentment. If the suits are something of an easy target, they are contorted and refigured with enough variation and joie de put-down that we remain engaged.
In truth, the line between art and political expression doesn’t exist for Mayers. She is open about her calling and she believes others should follow suit. The citation Robert Shetterly chose for his portrait of her, from his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series, reads in part, “We need artists to help explain what is happening in this country, to tell the truth and reveal the lies, to be willing to say the emperor has no clothes, to create moral indignation, to envision alternatives, to reinvent language.” May others follow Mayers’ example and take up the loaded brush.
Men in Suits: Paintings by Natasha Mayers continues at the Maine Jewish Museum (267 Congress Street, Portland, Maine) through June 21.