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Independent 20th Century

Joseph Elmer Yoakum and Richard Mayhew: Transcending the Landscape

September 1, 2022

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Dead Sea near Dhioan in Jordan So East Asia from c. 1970

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, "Dead Sea near Dhioan in Jordan So East Asia," c. 1970. Ballpoint pen, color pencil on paper; 12 x 19 in (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Work on paper by Richard Mayhew titled Ventana Series #2 from 2022

Richard Mayhew, "Ventana Series #2," 2022, watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 in (35.6 x 50.8 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Painting by Richard Mayhew titled Wave from 2004

Richard Mayhew, "Wave," 2004, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in (91.4 x 121.9 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Three Sisters Mountain range near McKenzie Ridge from 1969

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, "Three Sisters Mountain range near McKenzie Ridge," 1969, watercolor, pencil, colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 in (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Mt. Huerto near Juraz Mexico from c. 1970

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Mt. Huerta near Juraz Mexico, c. 1970, ballpoint pen, colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 in (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Goldhopiggan of Hardangenviddo Glacier near Dombas Norway N.E.E. from 1963

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, "Goldhopiggan of Hardangenviddo Glacier near Dombas Norway N.E.E.," 1963, ballpoint pen, colored pencil, pencil on paper, 12 x 19 in (30.5 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Untitled work on paper by Richard Mayhew from 2014

Richard Mayhew, "Untitled," 2014, watercolor on paper, 10 1/2 x 14 in (26.7 x 35.6 cm). Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York

For Independent 20th Century, Venus Over Manhattan will showcase two masters of the transcendental landscape. Richard Mayhew is a 98-year-old classically trained Afro-Native artist who has been dissolving the conventions of traditional landscape painting into ethereal fields of color for more than 70 years. The self-taught artist Joseph Elmer Yoakum, who died in 1972 at the age of 81, only began making his dream-like landscape drawings in the final decade of his life. Though he often gave accounts of his birth on the Window Rock Navajo Reservation in Arizona, records show that Yoakum was born near Ash Grove, Missouri, to parents of Cherokee and African American descent.

Mayhew and Yoakum’s approaches differ, but what these two artists share—beyond certain loose biographical connections—is an interest in taking the structure of the landscape as a point of departure for images that, guided by their own spiritual intuition, float beyond the very category altogether. “They’re both ultimately abstract artists,” says Adam Lindemann, the founder of Venus Over Manhattan. “Their landscapes are really about color and abstraction and creating their own language within it.”

Mayhew was born in 1924 in the village of Amityville, New York, on the south shore of Long Island. From an early age, his Shinnecock grandmother nurtured in him both a spiritual connection to nature and an interest in art, bringing him magazines of art and antiques to browse before he was able to read. Mayhew would also observe the working artists who traveled from New York City to Long Island in the summers to paint by the ocean, en plein air

“He talks about being fascinated, ​as a child, by how artists would dip their brushes into the paint and create a picture,” says Karli Wurzelbacher, a curator at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, who staged a solo show of works by the artist earlier this year. “To him a paint brush was like a magic wand.”

Mayhew went on to serve in the United States Marines in the Second World War and then to study at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the Art Students League of New York, the Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. He was a member of Spiral, an influential New York group of African American artists formed in 1963 in the wake of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, including Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis.

Mayhew “was making new, contemporary art in the 1950s and 1960s, but he was also very steeped in art history”, Wurzelbacher notes. “​For example, he talks about the work of [19th-century American landscape painter] George Inness a lot.” Since the 1960s, the artist has taught at institutions including Pratt, Hunter College, and Pennsylvania State University, where he spent 14 years as a professor. He has lived in Santa Cruz County, California, for over two decades.

Mayhew’s well-documented, academic trajectory is in distinct contrast to the self-mythologized life of Yoakum, who received little formal education and ran away from his home in Missouri at the age of nine or ten to join a traveling circus. Like Mayhew, he enlisted in the armed forces, serving in an African American unit in France during the First World War. He subsequently spent years traversing America and possibly Asia and Australia, taking a string of odd jobs as a railroad inspector, farm worker, miner, and seaman.

By the late 1920s, Yoakum had settled in Chicago, where he would spend the rest of his life. He started drawing in 1962, aged 71, coming to wider attention a few years later with his first exhibition in a church coffee shop. Most significantly, he was supported by Whitney Halstead, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his students, members of the influential Chicago Imagists. The school was a place where “non-mainstream art was being championed”, says Nancy Thebaut, a scholar at Skidmore College who contributed to the catalog for Venus Over Manhattan’s first Yoakum exhibition in 2019. Chicago Imagist Roger Brown later likened Yoakum’s impact on the group to that of Henri Rousseau on Picasso and his milieu.

Yoakum’s lifelong wanderlust almost had no choice but to seep into his work. Though the titles of his drawings often reference a specific location, the surreal, highly stylized compositions seem to have been more a product of the artist’s own imagination than any straightforward depiction. 

A clear example of this dissonance can be found in Goldhopiggan of Hardangenviddo Glacier near Dombas Norway N.E.E. (1963), a flowing mass of river, trees, mountains, and sky. It owes more to Yoakum’s formal ingenuity than to any sort of naturalism. “There’s something about the line quality in these works, the texture, the repetition,” Thebaut says. “There are these vast landscapes, and yet he includes little pockets of details that are kind of nonsensical, but your eye wants to dig deeper and look closely at his linework.”

She also points to a “portrait-like quality” in some of Yoakum’s landscapes. Indeed, some of the patterned rock formations in Goldhopiggan appear to resemble a ghostly grin. Halstead asked the artist if the anthropomorphic effect was intentional. “He didn’t really give a direct answer,” Thebaut says. “He basically said, ‘oh, if you see them, I guess they’re there.’”

A sense of geographical ambiguity is also key to understanding Mayhew’s work. “He will emphasize that he is not painting landscape in the sense of a view of a particular place,” Wurzelbacher says. “But that he is painting the emotion and the spirituality of a place, or of perhaps many places.”

To that end, Mayhew’s untitled 2014 watercolor, presented at Independent 20th Century, suggests the swirl of a topographic map or Color Field abstraction more readily than a real landscape. Throughout his career, the artist has insisted “that his paintings not be pinned down to exact locations”, Wurzelbacher continues. “And that curators and viewers really come to th​em not looking for clues to particular landscapes but from a place of feeling.” 

Emotion and its relationship to memory is an important throughline for each artist. They both create landscapes that can feel like the approximate rendering of a blurry mental postcard; Mayhew has even described his works as “mindscapes”. There is “a fantastical, otherworldly quality that both artists are able to achieve”, Thebaut notes. “Albeit through very different formal means and techniques.”

John Chiaverina is a writer based in New York City. He has contributed to publications including ARTnews and T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

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