By Maryam Philpott
America’s changing relationship with the world and with its own history of immigration may have dominated the news for the last six months, but it has long been the purpose of the arts to visually reflect our societies back at us. Lovers of modern American art have been spoiled of late with big shows at the Royal Academy and British Museum seeking to understand the post-war state of the USA through the types of artist it created and the way they saw the changes taking place around them.
Sophia Contemporary Gallery in Mayfair is bringing that idea right up to date with a small show dedicated to six artists who have produced work in the last five years, with the majority of pieces created in the last 12 months. Headlining the show is Venezuelan-born New Yorker Hermann Mejia whose large abstract paintings are making their UK public debut in a show that mixes the experience of American artists with those who work there but were born elsewhere.
Mejia’s work has much to say about how closely we really look at things; glancing at his paintings briefly they appear to be one thing but as you look more closely their form and shape change continually. With a day job as a comic book illustrator, the pieces from earlier in the decade have more recognisable features, a sad looking dog in front of abundant foliage or a woman’s head lying on its side but his there is something more ephemeral about his 2016 paintings that show an artist in transition, finding his own style in the fine art market.
The early work is however loaded with biography, so like Hockney painting his friends and lovers, Mejia merges images and impressions of his Venezuelan childhood with a particular tone specific to American painting. The dog, in fact, represents Mejia’s childhood poverty and the vibrant leafy green contrasts with the sombre and downcast creature in the centre that could almost be a Churchillian reference to depression.
Likewise, the woman’s head has a strong American influence, largely in black with a slash of blue sky and geometric shapes in primary colours across the top. The is such ambiguity in her expression that it is impossible to tell if she is asleep or dead, and the longer you look at it, you begin to notice elements of film noir that creates an almost sinister atmosphere, as well as painters like Edward Hopper who was a master of conveying loneliness on canvas.
It’s interesting to note that Mejia creates clay models of his subjects rather than sketches, which helps him to judge perspective, and this becomes increasingly important as the work becomes more ambiguous. At first glance, his 2016 paintings like the beautiful Pond seem like abstract bunches of flowers, with blowsy swirls of pink and white that could be roses or peonies. But looking closer there are animal shapes, horses and dogs particularly, and the dynamic brushstrokes create a sense of motion in all his paintings that links directly to his comic strip background.
Mejia, apparently colour blind, is adept at mixing soft and calming shades with bold stripes of colour that borrow from graffiti artists and add to the transient feel of this mini-show. Art, like theatre and literature, is a dialogue between the creator and the audience, and in pieces like Hanging  Mejia leave a corner of white space, an invitation for the viewer to complete the picture.
Alongside Mejia’s paintings, five other artists exhibit one or two pieces under the banner of Shifting Landscapes, which are of more variable quality. Best among them are Iranian born Afruz Amighi’s steel and fibreglass sculptures Head Feather I and II, suspended from the ceiling that look like elaborate headdresses from the Rio Carnival. Also fascinating are American Holton Rower’s cell-like patterns creating layer upon layer of texture in the sculpture It’s More Complicated Than You Realize which sums up much of the work in this exhibition.
Open to the public until 23 June, this eclectic show at Sophia Contemporary proves that modern American art is thriving. The changing political, social and cultural landscape is being translated by these artists, many of them born outside of the USA, but it is still possible to trace the influence of the traditions and history of their adopted nation.
Runs Until 23 June 2017 | Images: Contributed