Public Imagination: Mike Meier’s Man Out of Time at Forum
At some point pop history will pick itself up and move beyond robots and rayguns, Mayberry, Dragnet, and the stylized, beaming consumption of toothpaste and toasters. But even in 2017 those cold war era tropes retain an oddly timeless value as currency of the imagination, embedded (however cynically or sarcastically) in the world marketplace of profit and power. Long outmoded gender and technology stereotypes throng the front of the back brain like big clouds on a summer day, casting shadows on the app of the hour. Cold War phases of political delusion, consumption, and denial still have something to tell us.
Mike Meier is a Cleveland-based painter with longstanding interests in the visual vocabularies of industry, entertainment, and propaganda, as they bounce crookedly against actual subjective experience in our own bent era. A sense of isolated struggle bleeding through his imagery and inherent in his oil techniques marks him as an existentialist of a kind, concerned with personal freedom and the constraints placed on modern lives by political and economic distortions.
Appropriately, many of his earlier paintings show influences from former East German artists, especially those of the Leipzig School like Neo Rauch, as well as a select handful of other European painters of the past half-century — Michael Borremans, Luc Tuymans, and the transcendentally spooky young Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal. Concerns embedded in such painting include a fine-tuned awareness of a postwar, and then post-modern scarcity of formal conviction, a psychological semi-transparency which, at times, suddenly thickens and slaps the viewer with an invisible glove. Abundance of both material and cultural goods – of things and symbols, images and information – is reflected in reverse as a haunted spiritual scarcity in scrubbed, pentimento-ridden, pessimistic surfaces. The true subject lies beneath, barely submerged, lightly drowned in the work of art itself.
Earlier paintings by Meier such as those shown in 2015 at Arts Collinwood Gallery tended to be larger than his current works and more painterly in their execution. They were closer to man-made surfaces in damaged cities, reminding the eye of walls and whitewash, of billboards and signage. In the same way they seemed heavily, if accidentally edited, as if parts of an original picture had been covered up. What emerged was a conversation between time and altered intention, pictorial legacy and journalistic depiction. Factory-like repetitions, whether of machines or regimented human beings, alternated with face coverings (helmets, gasmasks). Identity and its erasure, the cooption of human beings and of work by the masks of industry and war, were defining concerns.
Meier (who is also a musician) named the current exhibit after an Elvis Costello song originally released in 1982 (though there are other resonances – Marvel Comics’ Captain America is also subtitled “Man Out of Time”). Meier writes, “The line “man out of time”…reflects the ideas of being out of synch, but also running out of time. In the current historical period we are left in an echo or hologram of the past, forcing our understanding into new systems of thought and sight.” The paintings themselves are pastiches of found imagery, reworked in strangely delicate, sure-footed layers. Executed in oil on canvas, Meier’s new mid-size works are striking for the restraint they exercise, and the eye for beauty they retain. Rendered in delicate shades of the primary spectrum, the ten works on display claim attention not only by means of cognitive gaps and leaps that time-travelling juxtapositions impose, but through their range of drawing styles and mark-making. Many of his figures are rendered in a grisaille, as in traditional portrait painting (or in paintings about documentary photography by Gerhardt Richter), emphasizing their archival quality. But there are also cartoon figures here (a Disney-ish turtle swimming across one work, a row of faces across the bottom of another), and lushly abstract forms, like a rainbow-haunted cloud obscuring a work titled “Metanoia” (which can mean both change of mind and change of heart). Then there are vague, brushy forms, or photographically referential out-of-focus background elements. In “Attenuation” a tattoo-like red rocket ship piloted by a child in a perky baseball cap heads deeper into the picture plane, across a mushy skeleton and other figures that crowd the canvas, toward a grisaille sketch of a man wearing a particle-filtering mask. “Once Upon a Time” shows a finely drawn woman crouching in a track suit. Strapped on her back is an imaginary propulsion device, while her tightly coiffed hairdo is visible, not under a hair dryer as you might expect, but through a fish-bowl helmet, equipped with an antenna. She smiles over her shoulder at a small boy in overall-style shorts who presses into the picture from another dimension; traces of cutout context and shadow outline his arm and legs. The drawing is cruder and he’s too big, almost as big as the woman; things are on a different scale, wherever he’s from.
Tapping into sci-fi as he combines multiple tropes about breathing and the unnaturalness of the present moment, Meier creates a sensitively painted, claustrophobic realm, where the only passage to freer breathing is a matter of simple beauty and the unlikely harmonies of improbable juxtaposition. Another line from Costello’s always fresh song mentions that the political monster he describes has, “a tight grip on the short hairs of the public imagination.” That tight grip is well-measured, and made to loosen a little in Meier’s lyrically nihilistic imagery.