By Glen Joffe
Everyone has a story to tell. In fact, everything has a story to tell – no matter the size or setting. In telling the story, a narrator may come to mind, or an author, journalist or any other person who specializes in words. Yet, some of the most intriguing stories can be told through visuals, sounds, and even movements; for example, in the case of dance. For some visual artists, boundaries blur. Words become images and images stories. Conversely, the story evoked by a singular image can be articulated in a written title of just a few words. Such is the case with Bob Meyer.
Meyer is an American award-winning artist, writer, actor and director born and raised in Chicago; now living outside Paris, France. He discovered his love of drawing at a young age much like many children, but surprised himself when one day he drew a thumb that actually looked like a "real" thumb. While many children forget about crayons and sketchbooks as they grow older, Meyer never stopped drawing. While attending Southern Illinois University, he received scholarships to study art at both the Ox-Bow School of the Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the following years Meyer entered the world of theater, eventually founding a theatrical company called the Gare St. Lazare Players, which would later become internationally known, providing part of the impetus to relocate to Paris. Since its founding, he has been responsible for the production of over 60 plays and one feature film, mostly in the role of director. Yet, paper and pencil for drawing were never far from Meyer's hands. Many of his earlier works are black and white drawings with compelling lines that exude a mesmerizing, even ethereal quality. Of those, many relate to his theatrical experiences. The same qualities apply to his lithographs. At times light and whimsical, at other times bold and defining, the lines in these works have the power to draw you deeper into the mysterious alluring worlds they depict.
In the past few years, Meyer has added color to his palette. This has enriched his works and created powerful layers that emerge from stages of discovering what he is drawing. Many of his paintings start with abstract lines or colors, which slowly take on shape and meaning in Meyer's eyes. For example, the drawing that became "Last Day Blue" originally began as two people dancing in the park. But after turning the paper this way and that, adding more lines and listening to what they were telling him, he realized it was an old dog; slow, almost too heavy for his own legs. It was Blue's last day. In "Crawl Fall Walk Fall Run Fall Fly Fall" what do you see? A determined face of a toddler taking his first steps or a wailing terrified face? This painting began as a boy ice skating with his mother. He is howling his terror for the world to know, but at some point, he started saying, 'I can do this' and put on his determined face.
A key feature in all of Meyer's works is telling the story through titles. They are not supplements of the paintings but rather integral parts; so much a part that the way you see a Bob Meyer painting before and after reading its title can change significantly. Take a look at the painting of a man sitting on his cart, pulled by a zebra donkey. It's a wind-up toy and pleasant for anyone to look at, but Meyer sees it differently. The title of this painting tells a most remarkable story: hidden inside the cart filled with corn is a young boy who is fleeing from someone or something to the border, and the only one who knows about him is the zebra donkey pulling the cart. Knowing this transforms the mood. No longer is this a leisurely picture of a farmer and his plodding, rather unusual mule. The farmer may know nothing, but the zebra donkey is pushing forward with a determined look, adding a sense of urgency to the piece.
Through his line, colors and titles, Meyer begins a story. We, as the viewers, finish it. In the archival fine art print of a young woman with bright red lipstick, she looks pale and disheveled. The title explains her look: "He waited until my birthday and then he dumped me." Suddenly you see the bags under her sad blue eyes and notice the smears on her lips. Her hollow gaze looks right through you and you can imagine the pain she is feeling - and her shock - which is there for all to see.
Or consider the painting of an overweight teenage girl standing naked and holding something to her shoulder. The black dot could be anything, but Meyer titles the piece "Runt" and we immediately recognize it as a kitten, the runt of its litter. There exists a tension between the large girl and the tiny cat; the affection and the sadness. It tells a difficult story that nevertheless captures our imagination.
Meyer's works often invoke curiosity and make you wonder. "Squeeze Play" depicts a toy made in Germany in the 1930s. The two figures will pummel each other when the wire connecting them is squeezed, which inspired the second half of the piece's title: "Forever Together. " That's a long time to be connected to each other; even longer to be at fists. This raises some questions. Will they ever come apart? What will happen if they do? We begin our own stories. The painting called "Transcendental Etudes No. 4 in D Minor . . ." looks at first to be an almost abstract work, until you see a pianist hunched over the keyboards, his fingers flying over the notes. It makes you wonder what music he's playing. Is it Chopin? Rachmaninoff? Finally, you see it is Liszt, whose music is so hard people have said they needed four hands to play his simplest piece. Liszt's name appears at the end of the title. Intensity resonates in this painting, engulfing not only the musician, but viewers as well. Meyer was inspired by a Glenn Gould recording of Liszt's technically challenging work.
Oftentimes with the wind-up toy paintings, Meyer feels the urge to add a twist to their stories through the title. It brings them alive, enriches their personalities and even provokes viewers. For example, the painting of a jockey on a horse is titled "Go ahead turn the key; I'm a jockey, that's what I do. I ride." There’s no mistaking his sardonic tone.
Look at the clown riding a tricycle titled "Just tell your mama and your papa. I'm a little schoolboy too." His words turn his mouth and expression derisive. Not because they are inherently mean people. Just try putting yourself in their shoes. In the painting "The Box marked toys" the pre-adolescent boy has grown out of his toys and is putting them away in a box, presumably for the last time. See the expression on the puppet's face. He doesn't want to be put away.
The closer you look, the more you'll see in all of Meyer's paintings, and the more you see, the greater depth you'll discover in each story. There is literally more than meets the eye in his works and it takes more than just a painter or just a writer to do what he does. Bob Meyer draws inspiration from every aspect of life and from it he creates undeniably compelling visuals that evoke surprise, laughter, sadness, curiosity, contemplation, sometimes even unease, but always a sense of admiration, inspiration and an underlying plot. His works not only tell the stories of their subjects, but invariably, ours too.