My American Dream: Keith Mayerson at MOCA

My American Dream (detail: photo wall from Keith Mayerson's childhood home). Keith Mayerson.

My American Dream (detail: photo wall from Keith Mayerson’s childhood home). Keith Mayerson.

There’s a magical-realist novella by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, in which one of the characters creates dolls in the image of all the members of their family, and moves the dolls through the days of their lives. Keith Mayerson’s My American Dream, on view now at MOCA, along with the regional exhibit Constant as the Sun, is a little bit like that.

My American Dream (detail: trompe-l'oeil photo wall), Keith Mayerson

My American Dream (detail: trompe-l’oeil photo wall), Keith Mayerson

Mayerson’s work—which covers a gallery, salon style, in mostly photo-based snapshots of his life and of American culture from his perspective, simultaneously narrates his life experience and parodies it. It’s both about his life, and a part of it. The meta effect continues on several levels. For example, it opens with an introductory wall covered with paintings, which is the recreation of a wall in his parents’ house– a wall covered with photos, a common feature in family homes honoring people and the history of the clan. Mayerson has replicated each photo from his parents’ wall as a painting—not only the content of the photo, but the frames, as well, with trompe-l’oeil that is faithful even to the gapped joints in the corners. Further, this iteration of My American Dream is the re-installation of an exhibit that appeared first in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. As Mayerson’s first solo museum show, the exhibit itself would read perfectly well as another painting, adding yet another scene.

My American Dream (detail), Keith Mayerson

My American Dream (detail), Keith Mayerson

But Mayerson’s endeavor is more ambitious, or differently so, than that of Fuentes’ character Consuela: he draws in not only personal history, but also iconic American moments photographed over the last 20 years: the September 11 attacks, Lebron James’ famous block from last year’s NBA championship, his own marriage to his husband on the first day that was legally permitted (of course connecting the personal to the historic moment), and much more. It is a bit like reading a biography or a novel: you begin with the artist’s childhood, as depicted in the paintings of the photo wall from his parents’ home, and then proceed through his life and vision of America. It’s personal, political, and witty, and it has multiple story lines, from the evolution of American understanding of sexuality, to civil rights and race relations, to the rise and triumph of Lebron James (depicted several times, beginning in high school in Akron), and of course the history of a family. The individual paintings are not the appeal: it’s the accumulation of scenes, the whole chronology. And on that point, it was clearly a massive undertaking to bring all the individual works together–borrowed, as so many are, from disparate collections. But the show depends on that assembly for its impact. Mayerson teaches a course in comic books, and the exhibit unfolds like that, scene by scene. In the course of it all, he emphasizes heroes more than villains.

My American Dream (detail, including Captain Kangaroo and Dancing Bear), Keith Mayerson

My American Dream (detail, including Captain Kangaroo and Dancing Bear), Keith Mayerson

The artist has strong connections to Ohio, and even to Northeast Ohio, having been born in Cincinnati, and having had solo shows and ongoing representation by Shaheen Modern and Contemporary (which loaned work and offered in-kind support for the exhibit). But those are far from the only connections between his exhibit to the rest of what’s going on at MOCA this summer. Both Mayerson and MOCA’s regional group show, Constant As The Sun, hold a mirror up to modern life, for better or for worse. In Mayerson’s eyes, it’s not just a nostalgic, flattering view that portrays progress. His emphasis on heroes, his documentation of his own (finally legal) marriage in the context of all the rest of what has gone on in twenty-first-century America, comes across as both realistic and optimistic. As much as you can read it like a comic book, you can read it like a personal newspaper. Take the time to immerse yourself in the images and make some connections between them, and you’ll want to keep turning the page.


My American Dream: Keith Mayerson

June 2 – September 17, 2017

MOCA Cleveland

11400 Euclid Avenue 

Cleveland, Ohio 44106

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.