James Meyer monograph - 2005

James Meyer's Quixote

In the work of James Meyer, we often see the "arrested motion:" which provides the artist with some uncanny imagery. We remember that the word uncanny is so linked with home and its opposite that it is almost an antithetical concept, as Freud has it, like the word cleave or passion. (I have a passion for these words like Shalom that contain triple meanings: hello, good-bye, and peace. Might it mean war?) Thus, these restless pictures, like Romanesque decorated columns, have a provocative narrative that is not easy to pierce or pluck. One might say that it is to the advantage of the Quixotic in Meyer's stories that we do not know, we cannot know, and yet we may never give up trying to know, what these combinations and permutations of children may be suggesting in their triple puns.

In the Following Sea, for example, we have a wild Henry Darger-like flight of two bathers from what might be an enemy, a riptide, a current undersea, or a monster out of Cervantes. In the distance, a wild leaning tree with a swing upon it seems to perch out alone on the blue lawn of the sea. Strolling towards this swing is either another child or an adult in impersonal profile. The artist has told me that he tries in an archive of photography to find what he might need in personae. Then, and in a way that he presumes may be Degas' methodology, he builds up a composition from many charcoal sketches till he gets the whole choreographed from these instants. This is why Rodin praised Gericault's horses over the photographs of his time - that somehow the painting permitted more leap and more arrest than any single snap. Meyer produces extraordinary terror in the outstretched arms of the two boys bounding in space. The parts may come from photographs, but the composition seems as frightening as a hanging. The swing is a toy for adults but also empty play, abandoned thing, disquieting object. It's not for nothing that in some exhibitions Meyer has placed a "real" swing in the gallery space, as if Dulcinea suddenly reached out from the pages of Quixote.

Doubles are thus a significant strategy for uncanny play. In one green watercolor, a child is kicking a ball, but we pay attention to the fact that the world is green, that all is doubled green, or green-black, and that something enchanted and horrifying seems to be happening in this monochromatic wetness. The threatened child is as vulnerable as Ernst's menaced by nightingale or deChiricho poets menaced by stopped time, farewells of a train station, and the mystery of a street. The ball of Thomas that has not yet reached the ground contains the physical threat posed by the marvels of motion. In Rimbaud, we remember this nightmare: "There is a clock that never stops... There's a cathedral that goes down and a lake that mounts... And finally, when you're hungry and thirsty, someone drives you away." One can never quite tell in Rimbaud or Meyer whether one is driven by carriage or beaten up. The verbs are so alike, in that arrested world where "A bird stops you and makes you blush."

In Quixote, we have greatness shared between the sensible Panza and the innocent or hallucinatory Don. Both together form one of the perfect unions and also discontinuities of modern comedy. Neither is a hero alone. Both need each other. The dream seems shattered only at the end, when the Don makes what might be a false conversion to the everyday. Job gets back his children, but are they the same children? If the Don gives up his dream, does that really invalidate 700 pages of a kaleidoscope, where even the chief heroine makes no appearance except as a money-grubber in a nightmare. Meyer appears to have taken this almost impossible doubling of characters and play-within-play to show us children who are relatively irreal fleeing toys that can hardly exist without them. The boys in one watercolor are sinking into the quicksand and the figure above is walking on water. Is it a windmill or giants?

Meyer has spoken to me of his taste for those marvelous moments when the Don explains something very real by accepting that it is "an enchantment." That is, even the horrible everyday can be seen as a sweeping false dream by some deus ex machina. Thus, the illusion need never end. If one sees something amazing, it is indeed amazing. If one sees the real, as if in disillusionment, one can say it is a miracle mistranslated by a Merlin. There need never be an awakening to a single besmirched fact. That is what makes Meyer, like Johns, such an inexhaustible artist - his imagery seems factual, but it is walking on water. His imagery seems marvelous, but it is just a fact, after all. But, nonetheless, Borges says such plays-within-plays, such books-within-books perturb us and make us feel ourselves less real. This is a true insight of Borges into the shakily untrue world of Quixote discovering a volume of Quixote inside the book Don Quixote.

And so Meyer gives us leaping women, in a forest that is difficult to tell from a deluge. Simple bathing suits and hair rhyme with a lot of pathos with the trees and turmoiled clouds. Is it hopscotch, or a gauntlet? The game is a grid system, but the frozen bodies seem to embody something fearful as Shirley Jackson's last stones. Again, two lithe girls jump through space, but the stippled and Piranesian effect is one of a prison breakout more than play. It's important that in doing this he doesn't play a minor surrealism out or a Hide-and-Go-Seek series of technical paranoia. But there is a suspicion throughout of something at a dangerous limit, as the swinger becomes almost insanely separated from the earth. The whole is as scenographic as any mannerist might want, and acidic in colors, and theatrical in self-reflexiveness. And yet the American virtue resides in the homely humor of a tree, a swing, and a red shoe.

I was terrified for most of my childhood by the Wicked Witch of the West and the idea that my house would at any given moment leap into the air. I was also terrified that beneath my bed a spy from a too-early reading of Man's Fate was about to plunge the dagger through my mattress. This terror must be said to be part of the physical and psychic lure of Don Quixote, written by a man who did indeed know brutality of all kinds. The darkness of James Meyer is explicit in his anti-gravitational rotations. We dwell in a world where the orange is as bright as seashrimps' ovaries, and as sexual. The girl pokes her own shadow, and whether they are angels or demons, putti of a non-playful kind make dizzying directions above us. Then they lose all definition, in another picture, and are perhaps radical ghosts of some pagan trace. In James Meyer's best Quixotism, that religion invented by Unamuno after Cervantes, we cannot tell the marvelous from the mania. Some walk on water; some walk on clouds. Some are convinced that the best way is to slosh through the ordinary facts. But as with Zen, even when mountains are mountains, and children are children, something has happened in between. It is said, The children imitating the cormorants are better than the cormorants.

- David Shapiro

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