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Issue 241

Rosemary Mayer Bridges Fantasy and Activism

Utopian sculptures and drawings unexhibited since their making are on view at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles

BY Claudia Ross in Exhibition Reviews | 06 DEC 23

In my only recurring dream, I find new rooms hidden within my apartment. Two simultaneous feelings accompany their discovery: sadness that I had not noticed them earlier, and excitement at the prospect of what they might offer. My viewing of Rosemary Mayer’s two-gallery retrospective, ‘Noon Has no Shadows’, held jointly at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, evoked similar sensations. ‘Dreams of rooms’ are, in fact, among the many items and ideas that Mayer names in a handwritten list on display at Hoffman, Everything That’s Influenced My Work / Me (c.1978): ‘Bernini’, ‘poverty’ and ‘aspirin’ also appear in the artist’s scrawl. This irreverent admixture is characteristic of Mayer’s oeuvre, which frequently combines canonical art forms with quotidian materials and expressions of social conviction. Proposals for public monuments and housing, rendered in colourful illustration and handwritten text, are plentiful; elsewhere, drawings pair depictions of expensive antiques with urgent pleas for cash. Including a number of previously unseen works, Mayer’s posthumous Los Angeles debut is both playful and political.

Ephemera: notebooks, typed sheets
Rosemary Mayer, ‘Noon Has No Shadows’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: The Rosemary Mayer Estate; Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

A focus on accessibility and social change infuses Mayer’s whimsical aesthetic. In the small watercolour sketch City Roof Tent on Wheels (1980), an ad hoc shelter resembling a festive May Day gazebo appears mid-movement, sliding down a set of city steps. Jane’s Moon Tent (1978) features a similarly cheerful hut with the emphatic phrase ‘anyone could make one’ jotted below it. Accompanying sculptures at Selwyn appear as the provisional, physical manifestation of these propositions: Vase Caravel (1984), for instance, stretches beige rag vellum across a wooden armature to form a structure that resembles, as the title suggests, both a sailboat and a water vessel – one that could either shield or serve its user. These pieces propose – and momentarily fulfil – solutions to pressing civic questions; Mayer’s artwork occupies the fragile, illusory space between fantastical vision and activist claim.

A vellum sculpture that leans slightly to the left; looks like a bag
Rosemary Mayer, Vase Caravel, 1984, rag vellum, wood, rabbit-skin glue, string, 89 × 71 × 53 cm. Courtesy: The Rosemary Mayer Estate; Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Playful winks at venerated objects animate Mayer’s appeals for social change. The enormous Portae (1980–81/2023) floats across a room at Hoffman, its bridge-like structure draped in grey, yellow and red fabric. The piece implies both a portae – an antiquated, luxury wine cradle – and an arched opening or portal to another, perhaps better, world. Nearby works on paper detail Mayer’s professional struggles in text overlaid on delicate drawings: the titular phrase in ICY DARK BROKE (1983) sits atop a bouquet of blooming lilies and daffodils while in NO MORE MONEY (1983) it accompanies a coloured-pencil rendering of a starfish. The latter artwork appears to be both an artistic elaboration of Mayer’s personal condition (in her 1971 journals, discussions centre on a lack of consistent income) and a call for the abolition of painful financial structures. Mayer evokes shared cultural pasts that creep into the present: depictions of Classical Greek vases at Selwyn sit alongside words such as ‘HUNGER’ and ‘SUFFOCATION’ to hint at more revolutionary positions.

An ink drawing of an amphora with the words "HYDRIA" and "SUFFOCATION" written across
Rosemary Mayer, Hydria/Suffocation, 1983, ink and graphite on paper 26 × 20 cm. Courtesy: The Rosemary Mayer Estate; Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

This past November, the Estate of Rosemary Mayer, which co-sponsored the exhibition, actualized one of Mayer’s unrealized proposals, detailed in a 1978 illustration on view at Selwyn. Connections Los Angeles (2023) invited five LA-based artists to dedicate balloons to loved ones before releasing them to float above the city at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills. Staying true to Mayer’s spirit, the artists hung bright ribbons and celebratory streamers from each balloon. Mayer, who passed away in 2014 aged 70, transgresses temporal boundaries easily: her socially oriented, inclusive projects dig into the past and surmise alternative futures. Meditations on time, politics and loss are not new to fine art, but Mayer’s work proves both enduring and engaging, equal parts cogent reflection and utopian dream.

Rosemary Mayer, ‘Noon Has No Shadows’, is on view at Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, until 23 December. 

Main image: Rosemary Mayer, Rhodia, 1989, pigment, paper, rabbit-skin glue, reeds, string 38 × 96 × 62 cm. Courtesy: The Rosemary Mayer Estate; Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Claudia Ross is a writer from Los Angeles, USA. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in ArtReview, The Baffler, The Paris Review, VICE and others.