Roanoke Times
Reprinted with permission

Geometry and Color Are Tools of Artist-Entertainer

by Clark M. Thomas
Times Art Writer

February 15, 1976

Michael Mewborn of Monroe is a very serious entertainer.

“I am providing something for people to look at,” he says, “and I am doing my best to keep it from being boring. To me the canvas is a stage upon which I am able to create a drama of sorts which gives to others a bit of myself.”

Mewborn’s dramas are not populated with villains and heroes, or anything remotely resembling the human form. Rather, his current drama is that of geometry and color crystalizing from randomness, within a preset universe of choices.

It may have been that mathematical element which caught the eye of Ken Peters, project manager for IBM. As part of the overall design concept of the new IBM building on Jefferson Street in Roanoke, a sum of money was put aside to purchase art.

Peters joined with Leslie Cheek, interior designer with Smithey and Boynton architects, to select art from a plethora of options. Ms. Cheek and Peters both were eager to encourage local artists. Ms. Cheek stated: “Instead of buying 100 prints of unlimited edition from a graphics company, we decided to patronize local art.”

Together they looked at several artists in a tour of area art galleries. Two artists were finally chosen, Mewborn and Stephanie Adler. Peters made the final decisions. Adler was chosen to crete 10 watercolors; Mewborn was chosen to create 20 serigraphs after Peters saw slides of his past work.

To help Mewborn be aware of the environment his prints would share, Ms. Cheek sent him “samples of colors and textures.” This was the only “restriction” on Mewborn’s creativity. “He could do what he wanted,” explained Ms. Cheek; “he could contrast or complement.”

How does Mewborn feel about this opportunity? “It’s like receiving a fellowship,” he beamed.

Mewborn was interviewed one evening last week at his studio in the basement of Gallery 720 in Lynchburg. During this time he furiously pressed brilliant-blue gloss poster ink through a silk screen stencil onto his prints No. 17 and No. 18 (not yet titled). He is making 25 copies of each design, and then destroying the stencils to protect the value of each signed serigraph print.

As he worked, he occasionally paused to tell the story...

He was born in Georgia in 1942. After serving two years in chemical engineering studies at the University of South Carolina, he decided to follow his real interest, graphics. While working thereafter as draftsman, illustrator, typographer, layout artist and graphic designer, Mewborn’s curiosity evolved into a fascination with geometric design as a pure art form.

In 1972 his desire to reflect on the nature of modern culture led him to experiment with hard-edge, brilliant colors - so typical of machine-made plastic artifacts. By 1973, Mewborn came into his own as a sophisticated conceptual artist, with the introduction of chance into his designs.

The 20 serigraphs comprising the “IBM Suite” demonstrate this technique of controlling chaos for creativity’s sake: As artist and creator, Mewborn sets up each universe of items from which selections are randomly made. An analogy could be drawn between his purely conceptual art world, and the world of nature’s natural selection-where genetic mutations are randomly selected within an environmental system of survival pressures.

Michael begins with four axes on the rectangle: horizontal, vertical and two diagonals. At each point where the axes intersect, a decision is made by random processes... Should there be a circle or not; if so, how large? Color have been pre-determined in number and type; randomness determines which colors go where.

Because he works with a maximum of six colors in these serigraphs, and sometimes with only two strong colors, often two or more color areas will merge into one area, into an unexpected shape within the overall rectangle of the print. “I don’t know when I start out exactly what I am going to end up with.”

Even the titles of Mewborn’s “IBM Suite” have been chosen at random. Each letter of the alphabet was assigned a number. “Then,” he says, “I selected 100 random five-letter combinations. From this list I chose the 20 that were most appealing to me. I wasn’t looking for words in the dictionary.”

Leslie Cheek’s personal reaction to such “words” as “BUANG,” “TEHIG,” “EDBTH,” and “BHAQI” was to enjoy them as letter combinations. To her, they are pure conceptual labels, every bit as free as Mewborn’s prints. As “words,” they do not represent, they simply are.

This element of surprise for the artist himself is rare in Western Virginia art works. However, Mewborn’s philosophy has an established pedigree:

Modern physics is still reeling from Heisenberg’s “principal of uncertainty.” Mathematics itself (that “purest” of sciences) cannot prove anything - as shown by Godel’s 1931 theorem. In art, surrealism, and especially Magritte, emphasized that the real is conceptual, and that the conceptual is also real. Chance and even chaos have played a part in the techniques of Arp, Picabia, Michaux, Dubuffet, Tobey, Pollock, and others.

Whereas Pollock demonstrated that painting can freely dispense with anything resembling an image, Mewborn does not go that far toward two-dimensional chaos. His universe is geometric, his colors and forms do not interpenetrate as in De Kooning’s manner. Mewborn shares this organizational impulse with Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, M.C. Escher and other geometricizers.

“Conceptual, nonobjective art is the purest of the art forms,” claims Mewborn.

His recent series of prints will go on public display for the first time today, at the Yeatts Gallery. Viewers accustomed to impressionistic, representational abstractions, have here an opportunity to explore pure conceptual abstraction - and test the purity of Mewborn’s claim.