Roderick Mead: Looking Between the Lines

I've already talked about Roderick Mead on The Fanciful Lobster, so readers will know how much I like this artist, but today's post is a special occasion in recognition of the RMAC's newest exhibit, Looking Between the Lines. A lot of the writing here will seem familiar from my earlier post, but there are plenty of new works to see below, so I encourage you to stick around.

In 2015, the Roswell Museum and Art Center received 39 prints, watercolors, and oil paintings by Roderick Mead (1900-1971), one of New Mexico’s most innovative artists of the 20th century. Bequeathed by the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust, this acquisition significantly expands the RMAC’s holdings of his work.[1] For the first time since their arrival at the Museum, these paintings and prints are on public view in Roderick Mead: Looking Between the Lines

Originally from New Jersey, Mead began studying art at the Newark Academy, later attending Yale University and the Art Students League in New York. During the 1930s, he moved to the island of Majorca off the coast of Spain, where he met his wife, Jarvis Kerr. In 1934, he relocated to Paris and began working at Atelier 17. Directed by innovative printmaker Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988), whose emphasis on unusual materials and spontaneous processes greatly influenced Mead’s technique and aesthetic, Atelier 17 was one of the most avant-garde printmaking workshops in Europe at the time, attracting such notable Surrealists as Joan MirĂ³ (1893-1983) and Yves Tanguy (1900-1955).[2] 

Roderick Mead, The Wave and the Cliff, 1937, wood engraving on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.

Roderick Mead, Tortured Rock, 1962, relief etching and engraving on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
With the onset of World War II, Mead returned to the United States, and after living briefly in Maine, Florida, and New York, he settled in Carlsbad with his family, remaining there until his death in 1971.[3] Technical diversity is one of the hallmarks of Mead’s oeuvre. As a printmaker, he had mastered a variety of techniques, including intaglio and wood engraving. In his oil and watercolor paintings, Mead often simplified his subjects to their most planar forms, turning still lifes and genre scenes into fields of color, shape, and pattern. 

Roderick Mead, Untitled (Cypress Tree Overlooking Sailboat), n.d., watercolor on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
 Yet technical mastery only defined part of Mead’s artistic practice. His primary objective was to create work that transcended fleeting trends or fashions, stating that “[My goal] is to engrave or paint this locality and the things around me without being strictly reportorial or illustrative…In other words, I aim in an abstract way toward a universal art and eventually I hope to do something timeless.”[4] His prints and paintings invite us to look between the lines and perceive the ethereal, otherworldly quality that his compositions evoke. 

Roderick Mead, Rain on the Hills, 1964, color multiviscosity relief etching. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
Many works, including The Wooden Horse and Cactus Madonna, reinvent Biblical or mythological subjects, enabling these works to comfortably engage the vast dialogue of Western art history while stylistically asserting their own distinct aesthetic. 

Roderick Mead, The Wooden Horse, 1951, engraving and soft-ground etching with color offset from assemblage on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
Roderick Mead, Cactus Madonna, 1945, engraving and soft-ground etching. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.

Other works depict more modern subjects such as carousel rides or rodeos, but distill the minutiae of contemporary society into meditations on life and art.  

Roderick Mead, Carnival on the Plains. 1949, wood engraving on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
In his Surrealist compositions in particular, Mead creates abstracted figures comprised of both positive and negative space. Often situated in equally mysterious landscapes, these enigmatic figures invite us to consider not only the dissolution between figure and ground, but the synthesis of humanity and nature, a Surrealist fascination that Mead likely encountered during his time at Atelier 17.[5]

Roderick Mead, Metamorphosis, 1937-1938, wood engraving on paper. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.
While the gift from the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust assembles a number of pieces spanning Mead’s career, the most historically significant work on view is undoubtedly the 1939 oil painting Refugees

Roderick Mead, Refugees, 1939, oil on panel. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.

Likely created shortly after Mead’s relocation to the United States, this powerful work depicts three abstracted figures washed up along a beach, possibly representations of the artist himself, his wife, and their young son.[6] Composed of curving, sinuous lines and negative spaces, the trio exemplifies Mead’s Surrealist figurative work, while their hunched positions and isolated setting add a sense of pathos to the scene. Naturalistic, detailed seashells are scattered along the foreground, providing a subtle yet striking contrast to the painting’s more abstract forms, while rocks in the background echo the poses of the three figures on the beach, further uniting the overall composition. Mead created the strongly emotive Refugees during a critical moment in his career, when he had to reacquaint himself with the American art scene after having spent the last several years in Europe. Yet he quickly embraced New Mexico’s distinct ecology, and it remained an important part of his artistic practice for the remainder of his life.

Though Mead is not especially well-known outside of the Southwest today, his work continues to resonate with viewers through its technical skill and creative vision. Mead found artistic inspiration in all of his environs, from Carlsbad to Paris, without feeling compelled to literally represent them, creating a body of work that is distinctly local yet universal in its love of line, texture, and the natural world. As critic Albert Reese pointed out in 1952: “Mead has been able to absorb the modern tradition without losing touch with his own background-with the Pecos Valley, that microcosm which, visualized with ardor and imagination, can encompass the world itself.”[7]  

Roderick Mead, Virgo from The Zodiac, n.d., engraving, soft-ground etching, and color offset. Gift of the Marilyn T. Joyce Trust.

[1]Prior to this acquisition the RMAC’s holdings of works was limited to nine prints and one oil painting, Hilltop Market, Taxco; before the receipt of this gift there were no watercolors.
[2] David Cohen, “Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988): Artist Biography,” Tate,, accessed 10 August 2016.
[3] The Annex Galleries, “Roderick Mead: Biography,” The Annex Galleries: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century Fine Prints,, accessed 6 October 2016. Jarvis Kerr’s family was also located in Carlsbad.
[4] Gregory P. Most, “Awash in Color: The Watercolors of Roderick Mead,” exhibit brochure (Carlsbad: Carlsbad Museum and Art Center, 2000), 1.
[5] Ruth Markus, “Surrealism’s Praying Mantis and Castrating Woman,” Woman’s Art Journal 21, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2000), 34.
[6] Gregory P. Most, conversation with the author, 23 November 2015.
[7] Albert Reese, “Roderick Mead,” New Mexico Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Spring 1952), 74.