Richard Mayhew, Indigenous Spiritual Space

Richard Mayhew, Indigenous Spiritual Space (Ser. No. 7), 1993–94, oil on canvas, 84.5 × 94.6 cm (Georgia Museum of Art, Athens) © Richard Mayhew

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at this gorgeous painting by Richard Mayhew called “Indigenous Spiritual Space, Series No. 7.”

Dr. Shawnya L. Harris: [0:15] In many ways that encompasses a lot of periods in the history of art in terms of landscape painting, abstraction, Impressionism. The artist is reconciling a lot of important movements as well as inserting a biographical note in reference to Indigenous spaces.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] The artist does trace his lineage back to the Cherokee and back to the Shinnecock, but this explosion of color seems to me to be referencing a landscape in his adopted California, not Long Island, where he’d spent the earlier part of his life.

Dr. Harris: [0:48] This explosion of blue and orange and green. Not necessarily something that you’d see, palette-wise, in traditional landscape painting. It’s almost like he’s trying to evoke landscape in general, but also a certain mood that the colors help to produce.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] For all of the brightness of the colors of this painting, it’s a canvas that I enter into quietly. And it gives me space to move through.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] What he’s getting at is entering mentally into a space, not necessarily knowing what it is and being able to identify it, but being able to enter with your eye.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] What you just said is very close to the process that the artist uses. Mayhew came out of the Abstract Expressionist tradition of artists who were interested not in representing the external world but rather to find a way of expressing an interior state. And that might be through action painting in canvases by artists like Jackson Pollock or it might be a much quieter kind of canvas, such as we see in the work of Mark Rothko.

[1:47] The artist has said that his process is to pour paint onto the canvas, and then to respond to what he sees slowly. Not to come to it with a predetermined narrative or composition. I think that that’s evident when we look at the surface of this painting, which layers so many colors, and it seems as if the paint is literally finding its way.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] The bottom of the composition, you can feel the buildup. You have the lavenders and the purples and the greens. Then you can move through to the blue, and then to this open space with the orange. It’s almost like you’re traveling through a thicket, and then you open it up and you see this broad landscape of orange and green.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] When I step back from this painting, those fields of color become fields of space, and they resolve as landscape. But when I walk up close, I’m seeing the paint. I’m seeing the surface. I’m seeing this as much more two-dimensional plane of color and as more pure abstraction.

[2:43] So there’s this really interesting tension that the artist is able to achieve between what seems like spontaneity but also informed at the same time by the long tradition of landscape painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] Everything from nondescript areas that make you feel as though it’s that plein air painting styles that are more sketchy in quality to the whole idea of the layering and profusion of paint that you would see in Abstract Expressionism. And then the hint of a more traditional landscape painting in the background with the trees, where you get the sense of depth of perspective.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] The painting seems to be referencing French Baroque painting, the work of Claude, the work of Poussin, the idea of framing a landscape with trees on either side and also using a technique where we see recessionary planes that lead our eye, step by step, back into the depth of the canvas.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] Mayhew would have also been informed by changes that would have occurred in the 1960s. Even when you look at the oranges, this acid quality of color, or the juxtaposition of the colors, reminds us of the palette of some paintings in the 1960s.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] It’s interesting to think about what it means to produce paintings that are so beautiful in a time of social turmoil in the 1960s. The artist was a member of Spiral, a group of artists who were interested in discussing how art could have social agency.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] This group of Black artists in particular were interested in how their work could be part of a larger message of social activism. Even though this painting was done in the ’90s, you get this sense of some of the tensions within that group but also around them during the 1960s.

[4:23] Of wanting to both be individualistic but also to be part of a larger conversation about Blackness, about what that means, about trespassing the conventional ways of artistically creating. Spiral was formed directly in response to the March on Washington during the civil rights movement, at a time where Black artists in particular were grappling with how they could lend their voice toward the struggle for freedom and civil rights.

[4:49] This tension of wanting to both embrace a larger artistic heritage but to still be able to speak to personal issues, in this case, Indigenous spiritual space. I look at these colors and I think about how Mayhew evolved over time.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Shawnya L. Harris and Dr. Beth Harris, "Richard Mayhew, Indigenous Spiritual Space," in Smarthistory, July 5, 2022, accessed July 20, 2024,