Notes from the Interior: Michael J. Marefka at Mahall’s

“Self Portrait in July,” Michael Marefka. Oil on canvas.

Michael J. Marefka’s Notes from the Interior: A Guide for Romantics, ongoing now in the upper level of Mahall’s 20 Lanes, is a happy marriage between artwork and creative curation.

Marefka’s Modernism-inspired paintings are enhanced by their display in the apartment-like second story of Mahall’s. Lakewood’s triple threat bowling alley/concert venue/bar has long been a respected player in the West Side’s cultural scene. Though has become known for live music, political forums, film screenings, and much else, it is rarely thought of as a destination for studio art. Notes from the Interior, however, is an exciting body of work enhanced by its surroundings.

Entering the upper floor gallery, visitors turning to the left will immediately see “No. 1,” a monumental-scale canvas painted with two scenes. In the first scene, a man in black stands in front of a framed painting, holding a bouquet of green and yellow flowers. His blue eyes are expressionless, but his mouth opens slightly in a confused frown. His whole face has a glassy sheen, as if coated in milky gel. The pink of the wallpaper is seeping into the painting-within-a-painting behind the man; the remainder of the frame is full of rows of green and yellow dots, doppelgängers of the man’s flowers. Either the painting has seeped into his perception of reality, or his surroundings have seeped into his perception of his painting.  In the second scene, a man in a tuxedo and a woman in a black dress stand on a sidewalk, outside a café with a candy cane-striped awning. Being a head taller than her, the man tilts his head down at the woman, and she tilts up. Their eyes and mouths are obscured, but their body language conveys that they are staring intensely into each other. It is unclear if they have loved one another for years, or if affection is only now budding between them. (A scarlet rose on the man’s lapel might, by way of a visual pun, suggest the latter). In any case, the couple’s enrapture with each other is unmistakable.

“No. 1” (detail), Michael Marefka. Oil on unprimed canvas.

The two images in “No. 1” encapsulate two themes highlighted in the exhibition’s title: romanticism and interiority. “Romanticism” encompasses both the ecstatic optimism of Eugene Delacroix and William Wordsworth, and the gothic darkness of Francisco Goya and Edgar Allen Poe. Marefka does not live at either of those two extremes, but tilts towards the pessimists. He is fascinated by humans’ indefinite capacity for feeling and imagination, but recognizes this capacity grants blessings and curses. His painterly eye finds beauty in the rind of a watermelon,  sunlight warming a houseplant through a window, and the contentedness of a solitary individual nursing a whiskey. But imagination untethered from reality can drift into hell just as easily as into heaven. In “No. 1,” the man in black cannot tell where a painting begins and the gallery ends, and is left alone and agog.  “Figure Study (Hallucination)” likewise portrays nightmare delirium: a seated figure’s eye sockets glow red, while his skull dissolves into a sheet of dancing white lights.

“Interior” has a double meaning in this show’s dialect. Many of the scenes literally do depict indoor scenes. The skill with which these images are constructed ought not be understated. Marefka avoids constructing both claustrophobic spaces and improbably cavernous ones. Through an open door, viewers observe a bathing woman in “Interior (Evening)”. No one would call her bathroom “spacious,” but it feels big enough. But “interior” as it relates to subjectivity or consciousness is what most interests Marefka. “No. 1” and “Figure Study (Hallucination)” take us to the furthest dark corners of the soul. However, much more of the space of Notes from the Interior is devoted to more common and familiar—but no less important—states of mind.

As mentioned above, small pleasures like a drink or a bath are not beneath Marefka’s attention. Neither are small pains. “Self-Portrait in July” seats the artist behind a table, resplendent with a bouquet and bowl of oranges. However, he is not eating, or admiring the flowers. His eyes are closed, and his lips clench into a tight pout. He seems to be meditating, trying to psychically remove himself from where he is. Boredom, ennui, and anxiety without external cause suggest themselves. In “Dusk (Melancholy Study),” a feminine figure leans on a windowsill. Outside, another man with a red corsage stands alone. The woman’s face is undefined; the man’s is detailed, and blank. But like a contract returned without a signature, it is a telling blankness. Shell-shocked, he stares ahead, eyes wide, mouth flattened into a horizontal line. As unmistakable as the visual metaphor is, the two figures’ physical separation demonstrates their emotional distance effectively. Moreover, Marefka foreshadows that their isolation will bring further dangers. The sky is red with dusk, and the moon is risen. The dangers of isolation increase with the dark.

In “Two Figures in the River Valley,” Marefka again has nervous figures stare in the direction of the viewer. These pictures immediately bring to mind works by Edvard Munch like “Anxiety” and “Evening on Karl Johan”. In conversation, Marefka cited Munch as an influence, along with Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, and Henri Matisse.

“Conversation Among Romantics,” Michael Marefka. Oil on canvas.

Like the Modernists he cites as inspiration, Marefka depicts objects with broad brushstrokes, soft angles, and vivid colors. However, he is not a mere mimic of his heroes. Marefka synthesizes in original ways, has developed signatures and styles that are all his own. The environments are comfortable and inviting like Matisse’s. The people, however, are anguished as they would be in a Munch or Hopper scene. Like many artists working in the years between the World Wars and Vietnam, Marefka is sensitive to the coexistence of material comfort and spiritual poverty. Reds and greens dominate his palette. The reds are sometimes pure and bloody, and sometimes shade into orange or pink. The greens are either luminescent like lime, or dark like pine needles. Lime is the most common hue used for human skin, and in Marefka’s hands, it proves surprisingly versatile. On different canvases, the artist deploys lime to project both the “glow” of health, and pallor of dread and sickness.

Marefka has said that, rather than a standard gallery exhibition, Notes from the Interior was conceived as a holistic experience—an “environment,” or a “happening.” The paintings were part of a multisensory tapestry which included the display space, floral arrangements by photographer Ali Scarpulla, and an opening night performance by composer Buck McDaniel. A specialty cocktail was even commissioned for the Dec. 15 bash.

However, even if one was not able to attend the opening and enjoy these trappings, Marefka’s exhibition stands on its own. The gallery space itself is its own effect. It has a domestic feel, with a mantled fireplace and cabinets full of handmade ceramics. Its design would not have felt out of place any time in the last century—and the same can be said of the suits and slick hairstyles Marefka’s figures wear.

Alongside Induction at MOCA Cleveland and Palettes for the Senses at HEDGE Gallery, Notes from the Interior is one of the most exciting exhibitions to use gallery space and multiple senses to enhance artworks. Marefka’s strong work will no doubt shine elsewhere, but the care and effort for this unique production should not be overlooked.

Notes from the Interior: A Guide for Romantics will run through early January at Mahall’s 20 Lanes. The second-story gallery space hosts some events, so please check Mahall’s calendar before visiting. Located at 13200 Madison Ave, Lakewood, OH. For more information, call 216-521-3280 or go to

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