Natasha Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series of paintings launches its pictorial world on a note of wary tenderness, viewing from a nonjudgmental distance the dance of shoreside vacationers. Mayers’s series of eighteen by twenty-four acrylic and charcoal on canvas works is extensive, and my thoughts here touch on only some of the paintings as I group the works in ways that cohere with my vision of them. The artist inaugurates the series (fig. 1 above) in a painting showing sunbathers and those in the shallows of the ocean in lyrical and bright jolts of baby blue shadowed to indigo depths on ecru sand. The scene is almost comforting, evoking a day at the beach, albeit a crowded one, with figures reclining and diving, amidst swirls and jags of water and smooth sand. And yet, the eccentric framing creates a decentered scene, almost like a snapshot in its use of abrupt frame, establishing a feeling of dislocation that guides the whole series. A large wave curls ominously. The painting’s flat depth of field eschews recessive space. Instead, each bather at Old Orchard is presented iconically in their own pictorial plane.
Created across the span of two years, beginning in 2021, the series emerges from and ultimately ironizes the painterly trope of seaside Maine scenes. It is in the series’ progression that lies are peeled away and truths revealed. In a playful painting early in Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series (fig. 2), we see arrayed figures touch and overlap. The color scheme and pattern of the water have shifted from oceanic blue to incorporate harsher orange tones and the water swirls as if the bathers were being subtly pushed into whirlpools. A third early image matches this tone of liveliness edging toward terror, as the painter in starker black and neutral tones (fig. 3) shows frolickers at Old Orchard pressed so close together, as they push from the shore toward the water, as to seemingly drown those submerged in the waves. Here, the shoreline is obscured beneath so many thronging figures, and the waterline appearing along the lowest section of the painting frighteningly implies that for those bathers who are in the water there is no space to rise for air. They might be ghosts or reflections of those on the shore. This sense of bodies striving for space in a world of excess is articulated more intensely as the series continues. The painter peels back the lie of American plenitude, revealing the truth of our present-day system of untrammeled overconsumption of resources and the violence it produces.
The paintings position themselves on a razor’s edge of lyrical oceanic evocation and an abiding and intensifying revelation of humanitarian crisis. Mayers’s paintings present an exceptional human state, one in which each individual figure is faceless, and no force or source beyond the figures is immediately shown, and yet the figures come together in scenes that, as the series progresses, become increasingly evocative of collective disaster and cultural chaos, with no way out. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and writer Primo Levi haunt these images, which extend far from tourist-appealing ensembles at the Maine shore. Here, “Vacationland” is a showcase for an imbalanced relationship between the human and the land and water. In this sense, a lie that her series unmasks is Maine’s own self-advertising as a space untouched by greed and need.
Her series reveals the violence of our norms—by positioning light and playful elements counterposed with heavy revelations of mass chaos, the series is structured to strip away the conceit of business-as-usual being okay. In Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series, business-as-usual is revealed—in truth—to be grotesque. The figures, faceless and often without much clothing (they are, after all, enjoying a hot summer day at Old Orchard Beach), stand for all of us. We are the audience of this potent warning. The series moves forward through steady revelation, presenting scenes of crowds in which bodies are pushed together into masses suggesting atrocities. Mayers’s vision shows the single source of these horrors: our collective unwillingness to create and live in mutually responsible communities. The lie of our economic system she reveals through figural evocations of collective harm.
As the series progresses, a lyrical and disturbing painting (fig. 4) shows figures emerging from and submerged in ocean water at the shoreline. Chiming with the inaugural color scheme of pale and dark blues, here the figures on the shore are now so numerous as to have become merged with each other on the sand while the figures in the water sink beneath waves’ pellucid curves. The figures tilt their heads and bodies balletically, and the soft and regular forms present them as anonymous dancers, caught in waves and water from which they cannot extricate themselves. This haunting sense of community as crowd, overcrowding, rather than community as unity and mutually supportive ethos, deepens in the next painting in stark black and beige (fig. 5) where the figures almost cease to be fully articulated as separate entities and those thronging the shore appear as if they were standing on, pushing others down into the water. The continued use of the flat plane derealizes and estranges the scene. We see it from a surreal scopic angle, a vantage that issues no vanishing point, no vista, only the abrupt edge where the next mass of figures is implied.
Body on body on body, the paintings cumulatively allude to multiple atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries, evoking people herded onto trains for removal, forced to walk from their homelands, forced to migrate and emigrate—refugees and displaced peoples seeking shelter and home somewhere. The images also possibly evoke victims of mass shootings. The painter recently added an image in this series meditating on the earthquake in Turkey. Mayers’s reach is expansive; her paintings subtly, lyrically, and terrifyingly signal the underbelly of capitalism that is the chronic displacement of human beings, displacements that result in overcrowding and atrocity, people shuttled and shunted into spaces where they have no room, spaces and places in which no room is made for human being, for being human, places of mortal risk.
As the series deepens, the figures become more entwined, pressed into indistinguishable masses. In two consecutive paintings that move decisively toward imaging people as forms thrown together, we are no longer viewing vacationers on a beach. One image in softer earth tones (fig. 6) prepares the way for a harsher painting (fig. 7) in deeper tones stippled with red. It is impossible for me, seeing in particular these paintings, not to think of Lee Miller’s iconic photographs of the corpses of those killed in concentration camps, taken just after World War II’s liberation, photographs that Susan Sontag described in On Photography as so tragic as to have caused her lasting pain in having seen them.
A painting in the series (fig. 8) suggests visceral chaos as bodies are pushed from the shore into the water, bodies curled into fetal positions and dotted with deep red while the next painting moves away from any semblance of shoreline (fig. 9) with a swirl of bodies piled on each other, some curled with hands over their heads, others with legs splayed. In figure 10, which I see as culminating the series’ progression, black clouds suggestive of explosion and gun violence cover the figures. Here, Mayers’s commentary on violent capitalist culture that compulsively treats human beings like discardable objects is dark. The figures are unrecognizable as Old Orchard Beach frolickers, and yet because they formally emerge from the artist’s earlier experimentations with figure and form on the theme of beach revelers, we see the force of her revelation. Violence, in the worldview of Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series, is not a rare trauma that happens to an unlucky few but rather is revealed in truth as the continual effect of capitalist colonialism that shapes our world.
And yet, two further paintings (figs. 11 and 12) show a recuperative aftermath to violence. After the explosive black-cloud painting, the series shows figures flung on a grid (fig. 11) but this tragedy moves then to a more composed scene (fig. 12) in which, while the color field is still harsh, lines and curves and order have been restored. Here, the figures appear to be rising, collecting themselves, and helping each other. There are ghostly suggestions of many still on the shore, yet the shoreline again is visible. We are back at Old Orchard Beach on a hot and crowded day with, as poet Robert Gibbons, in his book Old Orchard Beach Cycle, writes, “spirits palpably wisping around/& whispering in the wind / & waves.” Natasha Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series is a haunted, disturbingly insightful, and ultimately loving work of beholding humankind.
Note: The Old Orchard Beach series is part of the exhibition Plein Air Paintings at the Maine Jewish Museum, Portland, 2 March–28 April 2023. First Friday Art Walk will take place on 7 April, 5–8pm
Image at top: Fig. 1. Natasha Mayers, Old Orchard Beach series, acrylic, 18 x 24 in., 2021.
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