Maintraum: In the Wake

Kevin T. Kelly

Thirty years ago, I was introduced to this madcap coterie of artists known as Maintraum shortly after they’d moved into a shared studio space at 1140 Main Street in Over the Rhine. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, but kept myself appraised of the Cincinnati art scene through my pal and ofttimes collaborator, the late Dan Biggs. He insisted I meet this unlikely quartet of rascals who were quickly gaining a reputation for turning the local art scene on its head. We became instant friends.

Tom Towhey, Robert Morris, Dana Tindall and Steve Geddes became the group known as Maintraum (Dream on Main Street). As a whole, the work produced was highly individualistic and eclectic, yet they shared the synergy of a common vision; Maintraum wasn’t so much a group or place, it was a state of mind. Rising rents displaced them in 1995 and while it has been nearly three decades since they’ve collectively mounted a group show, “Maintraum: In the Wake” doesn’t disappoint.

The exemplary sculptures of Steve Geddes are a marvel to behold. He combines the artistic skills of an old-world master with the caustic satire of a George Carlin. He revels in the ironic, excels in the sarcastic and when focused on his subject matter, it is with a gaze intended to pick the bones clean.

All of Steve’s four works in the show are remarkably witty and impeccably crafted, but two stand out in particular for their biting political commentary. Fashioned in the form of a toddler’s pull toy, “Batshit Crazy” depicts Donald Trump stuffed into a chariot being pulled by a company of hooded Klansmen heads. He wears a tinfoil hat, sports a reptilian tail, and from a bullhorn mounted in front of the Donald’s mouth emanates a colony of flying bats. While brilliant and hysterically funny, I can’t help but think this is Geddes spleen venting, going after low hanging fruit and preaching to the choir. After being excoriated by the main stream media for four straight years in office, what insults haven’t yet been heaped upon Trump?

Geddes’ real gem however, is the sublime “Fear Sells”, with media mogul Rupert Murdoch stoically piloting an aerial advertising bi-plane, pulling a banner (ironically resembling an election yard sign) which reads “FEAR! sells” in patriotic  red, white and blue hues. The color of the plane is red, the blue wings are those of a bat, and the nose of the plane is sculpted into the head of a bald eagle. This particular work poignantly speaks volumes to the current state of Zeitgeist Americana and the perpetual fear mongering and trauma-based mind control proffered by the propaganda mill of main stream media. Politics aside, make no mistake, ALL outlets are peddling their own brand of domestic terrorism for mass consumption and dividing the nation.

Steve Geddes, “Fear Sells”, Wood, Metal, 9.5 x 34 x 15.5”

(Photo credit: Kevin T. Kelly)

The paintings of Robert Morris are indicative of a lifetime of artistic and spiritual query. To the undiscerning eye, one would (wrongfully) assume that Bob has been repetitively painting the same image over and over for the past thirty years. In a cursory respect, one might say that is true; the paintings all suggest a high altitude, topographical view of his Australian homeland, rendered in essentially the same, limited palette. But Morris is a perfectionist, seeking the quintessence of his art through repetition, like the shaman or tai chi master. Any practitioner of tai chi knows the difficulty of mastering the form. It takes time and an unrelenting adherence to the practice, but once a threshold is crossed, there is a heightened sense of awareness rarely perceptible to the uninitiated. 

Of the seven paintings presented by Morris, the gargantuan “Tempus ant Spatium” (Time and Space)  No. 34 nearly sucks the air out of the front gallery. At eight feet high by seven feet wide, the viewer’s peripheral vision is completely engulfed by the landscape and while impressive for its epic scale, doesn’t really allow for much introspection or contemplation because of the room’s narrow confines. 

The more moderately sized canvasses are much better suited for this space and “Tempus ant Spatium” No. 138 shows Morris at his finest. This painting has a primordial feel to it; a world in the dynamic state of becoming, shaped by the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Rectilinear lines suggest a grid, perhaps alluding to the notion that reality is indeed a hologram. A giant rift in the central landmass spans the canvas from nearly top to bottom, begging the question, “what lies beyond the veil?” It is Morris as shaman, plumbing the depths of his own psyche and questioning the very nature of reality.

Robert Morris, “Tempus ant Spatium” No. 138, 

Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 30”

(Photo credit: Kevin T. Kelly)

Dana Tindall’s sculptures, are suffused with a compelling sense of dark humor. At first glance they disarmingly evoke a jovial, even playful appearance, but upon closer examination, one realizes the resolute seriousness of their intent. An inveterate info junkie, Tindall finds his creative inspiration through what he terms “doom scrolling”. He pores over the news media (both national and international outlets) every morning in an effort to arrive at the most “unvarnished” appraisal possible regarding the state of current affairs. His recent food series is a cogent and incisive commentary on materialism and especially, American excess.

His contribution to the show is replete with super-sized, over-stuffed, packed-to-the-max food items, mostly of the junk variety. There are triple-scooped ice cream cones lilting precariously on painted bronze pedestals like trophies to American gluttony. Several imposing “Shelf Pizza” slices droop and sag forlornly in a corner bookcase, reminiscent of the desolate aftermath of a raucous fraternity party gone awry. And in a corner, brooding ominously is the monolithic  “Big Bacon”, a 55 inch tall monument to the undisputed King of the American Breakfast. 

Of all Tindall’s delightfully ironic sculptures, perhaps the most trenchant is simply entitled “Hamburger”; that quintessential fast food commodity in which Americans consume 50 billion a year. Tindall’s version is of course, served Uber-Super-Duper-Deluxe, with five quarter-pound patties, four slices of American cheese, a pound of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles and a quart of mayonnaise. Funniest of all is that it nonchalantly sits atop the ubiquitous white take-out container which, at best, couldn’t hold a third of the monstrous sandwich. It’s enough to give Dagwood Bumstead a massive coronary.

Dana Tindall, “Hamburger”, 

Mixed Media, 11 x 5 x 5”

(Photo credit: Kevin T. Kelly)

Tom Towhey’s prolific work runs the gamut from drawings and paintings to three dimensional sculptures and assemblages. Within the Maintraum group, he’s the bridge which connects the dots between the sculptors, Geddes and Tindall and the painter, Morris. In some respects, he’s most similar to Morris, exploring realms of the unconscious, operating in dreamtime and creating his own peculiar version of reality. Whereas Morris is seeking artistic perfection (or spiritual enlightenment) through a subset of self-imposed guidelines, Towhey has burned the guidebook and plunged headlong into uncharted territory with machete in hand.

His two dimensional images rarely begin with a preconceived starting point, but as shapes and color relationships emerge, so does a narrative of sorts. The kind that occurs in dreams; vivid and surreal, neither solid nor spectral, whimsical at times and terrifying at others. Metaphor is the language of the unconscious, and Towhey’s realm is inhabited by a vast array of shapeshifting figures, symbols and archetypes swirling about in an hallucinogenic, preternatural maelstrom. Interpretations of Towhey’s paintings are as numerous and varied as those who have viewed the work. 

Just as commonality can be found between the paintings of Towhey and Morris, the same can be said of his sculptures and those of Geddes and Tindall, sharing the same brand of gallows humor. “Off the Tracks” can be seen as a bookend to “Batshit Crazy” by Steve Geddes, one satirizing the administration of Donald Trump and the other lampooning Joe Biden. Constructed of welded stainless steel, a beautifully crafted steam engine from a bygone era careens wildly out of control along the railroad track. The precarious placement atop a shelving unit suggests, not only is the train in danger of flipping on its side, but that it is also headed for a massive chasm. It’s no stretch to imagine an addled Biden in the cab recklessly shoveling coal into the already white-hot firebox as the iron horse hurtles pell-mell into certain oblivion. 

Tom Towhey, “Off the Rails”, 

Stainless Steel, 20 x 29 x 11”

(Photo credit: Kevin T. Kelly)

I met the Maintraum boys when we were all young and filled with fire and audacious intensity. Now we’re senior citizens. Despite working independently for the past thirty years and how unfathomably times have changed, the collective aesthetic vision between them remains palpably intact. The show looks as if it simply dropped out of the sky, with the work of each artist seamlessly complimenting and informing the others. 

As artists age, they’re often nagged by the gnawing question, “Is my work still relevant?” The art world, if nothing else, is capricious and one’s purported place within it, ebbs and flows with the vicissitudes of the cultural tide. It’s the dedication to excellence, that burning desire to probe continually deeper in the pursuit of mastery that not only bonds, but impels these four artists. Some artists have staying power, others do not. Maintraum has proven its mettle.