I first saw John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) at the University of Colorado in the mid-70s. The print was battered, the images de-resolved, flickering and stuttering. Details of the coach, horses and characters dissolved in abstract shadows as the searing glare of the Arizona desert spilled into the auditorium. Still, the compelling story and performances, dynamic action set-pieces and powerful cinematic compositions came through. In its ruined state the old film seemed like a relic of an actual frontier.
I moved to Billings, Montana, in 1982, becoming assistant director of the Yellowstone Art Center. Living in a place where the legacies of Charlie Russell and Will James and their followers were still prominent and popular, and working as a contemporary art curator committed to supporting modernist and experimental contemporary art, my own “western” paintings were freighted with a post-modernist, satirical edge—fitting to the times—and loose paint-handling akin to the styles of my Montana friends Ted Waddell and Chris Warner.
Having become a fairly serious student of the western film genre, I can’t imagine more vibrant inspiration for pictorial art. Though there is a vast, industrial-scale inventory of “B-Pictures,” serials and TV shows, I have concentrated on more historically important and aesthetically distinguished Western films. Filmmakers like John Ford, Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah were visual storytellers, masters not only of cinematic art but also knowledgeable about the history of painting. Ford drew specifically from the imagery of Frederic Remington; Leone, the surrealist Georgio de Chirico; and Peckinpah painted cinematic Jackson Pollocks with slow-motion explosions of simulated blood.
Andy Warhol and many other painters have employed publicity stills in their works. I go into the film itself and extract one frame from the tens of thousands that make up a time-based narrative. Among the things I am looking for is imagery that implies something about the essence of life or the human condition, our existential dilemma, and endurance, courage and boldness of action. I particularly love the relationship of horse and rider, the hybrid animal—graceful, powerful, beautiful and dynamic. Where once my painting style was action-oriented—with expressionistic paint-handling—now, I more carefully define the ephemeral, relativistic forms and hollows of galloping horses, the placement of the feet, the blur of legs crossing multiple points in space, muscle and bone, air and dust.
It is impossible to accurately paint a galloping horse without a photographic reference. The stop-motion sequences of late 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge first supplied realist painters like Thomas Eakins and Frederic Remington the accurate data they needed to perfect their depictions of animals and humans in motion. The fractionated stills of motion pictures supply me with what I need to explore and delineate the graphic drama of dynamic forms in space. In the painting process, the projected still is a score for a myriad of improvised intersections. I employ multiple brushes and other tools, working paint of varying consistency, tone and value into the weave of the canvas and accretions of pentimenti and impasto. Thousands upon thousands of marks conjure animate presences, appearing suspended in a membrane of concentrated attentions.
There are many Wests and each person who lives here or visits has a different relationship to it. Historian Patricia Limerick speaks of “the West’s unbroken past,” implying that the historical forces of the 19th century frontier continue to play themselves out in the contemporary West, what she calls in the title of her book, “The Legacy of Conquest.” The history and legendary narratives of the advancement of the frontier, the conquest of the continent by European explorers, colonists and generations of settlers are resonant even today. The later chapters, occurring west of the 100th Meridian—involving wagon trains, miners, the Homestead Act, the Transcontinental Railroad, the slaughter of the buffalo, the defeat of the Indians and their confinement on reservations, the cattle barons and epic cattle drives, the bandits and town-taming lawmen —were revisited in books, Wild West shows, rodeos, pow wows, paintings and sculpture, comics, movies and TV throughout the 20th century and into the present. The “conquest” of the West is one of our central national myths. In a large part, it defines what the United States is, and who we are as a people.
Three distinct series have coalesced in my works dating from 2014 to the present. The Olympia Series features competitive divers from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As composed by Leni Riefenstahl for the documentary Olympia, these figures appear to be flying under their own power more than submitting to gravity. A group of rodeo pictures were inspired by Ken Kesey’s Pendleton Roundup novel, The Last Go Round, and early twentieth century rodeo photographs by Ralph Doubleday, Lee Moorhouse and others. Several paintings are derived from Rocky Mountain, a film that was released in the year of my birth, 1950. Together, the paintings chronicle a trope as old as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an attack by Indians on a stagecoach and response by armed
white men. The beginnings of a new series set in the West of my era are represented by two paintings of a cowboy and horse crossing a busy, modern highway derived from Lonely Are The Brave, 1962.