George Mauersberger: Transforming Line
In the small rooms of a duplex house on Cleveland’s West Side George Mauersberger stores and sometimes makes his large-scale drawings, which have been a mainstay of the city’s visual art scene for the past thirty years.
Whether these images in graphite, pastel, and watercolor are Realist, Hyper-Realist, Pop, or something else, they’re remarkable for a hallucinatory fidelity to the objects and persons they depict, and for the sense of real-life textures they evoke. Mauersberger uses photography as a visual source, but the relationship between the artist’s hand and technical evolutions in photography (a subtext of much twentieth- century realism) isn’t really one of his subjects; likewise, even the works’ trompe l’oeil qualities seem to be just a means to an end that has little to do with technique. Mauersberger’s virtuoso renditions of himself, his T-shirts, his leather jackets, his all-but-psychedelic depictions of flowers and landscapes, are all about getting closer to the grain of things, exploring touch and depth and the complexity of visual experience. Their central concern is psychological in a twenty-first-century sense, immersed in the sensual diversity that defines perception itself.
George Mauersberger has been known to students at Cleveland State University since 1987 when he began teaching drawing there. Later he served as Art Department Chair for two four-year periods, most recently from 2007-2011. Prior to obtaining his teaching post Mauersberger worked for several years as a commercial artist, following undergraduate years at the Pratt Institute in New York and then at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburg. He earned his MFA from Ohio University in Athens in 1983.
Life wasn’t always so academic. He was raised on a farm in the Upper Ohio Valley, not far from West Virginia. “There was very little interaction with culture,” he remarks drily. He heard of the Famous Artists School (founded in 1948 by Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell in Wilton, Connecticut) and signed on, pursuing mail-order lessons. Mauersberger corresponded with real life East Coast artists, submitting assignments to them via the mails in those long pre-internet days. The practice and professional feedback gave him a good foundation of daily drawing experience, as well as some contacts in the intersecting worlds of art and business. A few years down the road. in his undergraduate college days and afterwards, he did jobs for many different magazines and newspapers. “I used to do portraits, to illustrate bios of CEO’s,” he recalls. He moved to Cleveland after OU to work at a major local design studio, doing occasional jobs for the Plain Dealer and the magazine Industry Week, among others. At the time Cleveland was one of the chief publishing markets in the country; it was actually a great place to be a commercial artist.
Mauersberger began to break into the city’s fine arts scene (a different matter entirely) in 1986, when two of his drawings were included in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show, winning Best in Show Award for works on paper. Titled “Docu-Drama” and “Diagram,” the two long horizontal panels were like pages of a gigantic sketchbook, covered with renderings of objects and scenic elements. Reading “Diagram” from left to right, it depicts a pinwheel-like flower, drawn as if taped to the page with pieces of transparent tape across its stem — followed by a section of a roller-coaster trestle, an oak leaf, a plumb weight and other things, ending with a bow tie in the lower right. It’s like a souvenir document of a life or part of one, a reverie. In “Docu-drama” Mauersberger draws includes two careful drawings of snapshots of himself with eyes closed. His head is seen at a slant in the first of these, in the other it’s thrown back – as if he were asleep, then dead. Beneath these two are sketches of them, in light pencil lines, rimmed with trompe l’oeil shadow. The artist presents a sketch of a drawing of a photograph in a larger drawing; and so on. Compared to his more recent works these early attempts lack the virtuosity and sense of cognitive surprise that are now his trademarks. But the idea that a drawing is a translation and a token of experience is something he learned long ago.
The question, “what shall I draw” resonates oddly in Mauersberger’s work. His origins as an illustrator and his interest in the documentary uses of depiction, especially coming of age in the era of Pop Art with its passion for surfaces, have often led him to study either sheer sensuous beauty, as in landscape or cloudscape or flower depictions – or to render literally autobiographical objects. He often chooses to draw his own head, his clothing, his hands. When he was very young, he says, he looked at magazine illustrations, thinking how great it would be to see his own work in those pages. Soon he went on to do that, learning to draw, at first very well, then much better as the decades passed. He renders his over-size, remarkably tangible, tactile faces and flowers and jackets – leather and cotton, tightening flesh and yielding, all but invisible petal-scallop – with nothing more than his pencils, or sometimes pastels and watercolor. Mauersberger practices a profoundly human magic – the gray magic of prolonged attention and repetition.
An exhibit of George Mauersberger’s work in pastels will be on display at the Butler Institute of American Art this Spring, with an opening reception on March 5. Concurrently, from March 30 through most of May, a number of his watercolors can be seen at Bonfoey Gallery in downtown Cleveland. Among the highlights (which also include some beautiful sunset seascapes and botanical illustration-inspired flowering plants), several of his powerful, profoundly strange self-portraits will be on display at one show or the other, including “Success,” and “Hed 11.” For the “Hed” series (from 2012), the artist treats himself as an object in space. There’s something like a board covered in a white sheet drawn across the lower part of the picture plane, and it’s as if Mauersberger’s head is placed on it just like a bowl of fruit, his features pushing toward us, his left shoulder and the wrinkles of his white T-shirt rising beyond. We can count the hairs flowing back from his forehead and observe every nuance of flesh. He appears depressed, or exhausted; his eyes are half-closed. The wonder of the piece, for me at least, is the thrust and volume of this head, its gravity and unnatural balance; as if it were about to roll away – like a prelude to a beheading. Perhaps one takeaway here is that all heads are like that, on their narrow stalks – improbable and gravid.
“Success” also can be read as less than upbeat, yet marvelously strange. Mauersberger shows himself in profile, facing to the right. His chin rests on one of a series of white steps; the skin beneath his jaw ripples and folds minimally, responding to the pressure. Here his back and shoulders are unclothed, his head shaved. It’s also squared off in back and along the top with geometric precision, almost matching the steps, as if he were a step himself. He looks something like a monk, and I think the message is, again, more about the improbability of human potential, than a comment on convention or behavior as such. The “success” in question is the miracle of the work itself, converting the page into life, life into a lengthening page.