Strato­spheric sto­ry­teller

Jerry West launches a mono­graph about his work at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art and an­tic­i­pates an up­com­ing show of his dream­scapes at Phil Space

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

IN the open­ing es­say of the new mono­graph Jerry West: The Alchemy of Mem­ory — A Se­lec­tive Ret­ro­spec­tive, con­tribut­ing au­thor MaLin Wil­son-Pow­ell writes that West, although he was born in 1933, was raised in a New Mex­ico that had not en­tered the 20th cen­tury in many ways. In some cor­ners of the art world, ro­man­tic de­pic­tions of the “wild West” pre­dom­i­nated. Some artists in Santa Fe were still pro­duc­ing 19th-cen­tury-style paint­ings, while mod­ernists were be­gin­ning to ex­plore ab­strac­tion. But West’s com­po­si­tions lie some­where in be­tween the ro­man­ti­cized past and the re­al­i­ties of the present; his paint­ings con­flate th­ese sub­jects. West’s body of work is at once “West­ern” in its de­pic­tions of the desert South­west and its old home­steads, ranches, and Span­ish mis­sion­ar­ies and sur­real in his treat­ment of the fig­ures who in­habit the land­scape. In his works, place be­comes a psy­chic ter­rain where dream nar­ra­tives play out. “I am a sto­ry­teller,” West told

Pasatiempo. “I’m cer­tainly con­nected to this world, and I kept com­ing back here even though I’ve trav­eled. New Mex­ico was al­ways in my dreams that I had in for­eign places.”

West signs copies of the new book (pub­lished by the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press) at the New Mex­ico

Mu­seum of Art on Sun­day, May 17, af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with Wil­son-Pow­ell. Co­in­cid­ing with the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, an ex­hibit of his paint­ings, The Alchemy

of Mem­ory, opens at Phil Space on May 22. The artist has re­mained true to his pow­er­ful vi­sion of the West as a place of myth and spirit but also one of strug­gle, drought, and plague. West’s fam­ily came to New Mex­ico in 1926. He was one of five chil­dren, and the fam­ily was poor. West, like his fa­ther, had an artis­tic tal­ent, although nei­ther his fa­ther nor his sib­lings ac­tively en­cour­aged him. “Those were very tough years,” he said. “The de­pres­sion hit in ’29. I was born in Ohio when my par­ents went for a short visit at the peak of the De­pres­sion.” West’s fa­ther, Hal, found em­ploy­ment with the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion. He was a friend of artist Gus­tave Bau­mann, who taught him print­mak­ing tech­niques. “My dad had great vis­ual mem­ory and abil­ity to draw, more so than I ever had. He was a sto­ry­teller, too, and stayed very true to that.”

That im­pulse to make nar­ra­tive art was passed from fa­ther to son. West’s first ma­jor in­flu­ence came in high school, where he was a stu­dent of Jozef Bakos — who, with Wal­ter Mruk, Wil­lard Nash, Fre­mont El­lis, and Will Shus­ter — was part of the Santa Fe-based artist group Los Cinco Pin­tores. “Joe was a real men­tor in sev­eral ways. He took me on in my sopho­more year. He knew of me be­cause of my dad. He liked me be­yond just the class­room and taught me to plas­ter. He was an old builder. For the rest of his life I stayed in touch with him.”

West’s grad­u­ate work at the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico was in bi­ol­ogy, and he taught the sub­ject, along with his­tory, at Santa Fe High School. Af­ter his col­lege years, he sought to re­con­nect with his fa­ther and mend an alien­ation that be­gan when West was in high school. “He lived on Canyon Road and had a lit­tle gallery that would open in the af­ter­noon. He wasn’t well phys­i­cally. I got reac­quainted with him and de­vel­oped a re­spect. I opened a lit­tle frame shop and slowly worked back into the art com­mu­nity.”

In the mid-1960s, while he was still teach­ing, West de­cided to study print­mak­ing at New Mex­ico High­lands Uni­ver­sity. He stud­ied un­der Elmer Schoo­ley. “I loved Elmer Schoo­ley, and he loved me. We re­ally bonded. But we didn’t bond in the paint­ing area. He wanted so badly for me to be a modernist and get away from sto­ry­telling and fig­u­ra­tive work. He pushed me in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. I tried to sat­isfy that, but I strug­gled be­cause I knew it wasn’t my thing.”

In the 1970s, West be­gan di­vid­ing his time be­tween New York and Santa Fe, where he built cus­tom homes with a friend while mak­ing his art. In New York he con­tin­ued to ex­plore print-mak­ing at the Print­mak­ing Work­shop of AfricanAmer­i­can artist Robert Black­burn. “Dur­ing that pe­riod I started do­ing my dream im­agery,” he said. Dreams be­gan in­form­ing many of West’s com­po­si­tions, and sym­bolic im­agery merged with the familiar South­west­ern land­scape. “I be­gan see­ing John Tal­ley, who died a few years ago. He was a real great Jun­gian an­a­lyst. Start­ing from that deep source of dreams is a very valid way to begin an im­age. I started a whole se­ries of dream images, which is in the first chap­ter of the book, which I call ‘A Prairie Night.’ There are about 26 paint­ings all deal­ing with dreams about my com­plex fam­ily, my dad’s ill­ness, the death of my dad.”

West’s paint­ings deal with mo­ments from his own past and his child­hood on a New Mex­ico ranch. The prairie was a mi­cro­cosm, a self-con­tained oa­sis un­der threat from rapid ex­pan­sion and devel­op­ment. That’s one way to read Prairie Homestead With Ap­proach­ing

Cos­mic Storm, a paint­ing from 1986 show­ing a bird’seye view of the land — a re­cur­ring per­spec­tive in his com­po­si­tions — and a small, iso­lated ranch un­der threat from a mas­sive tem­pest that fills the night­time sky. Oth­ers might in­ter­pret the storm as rep­re­sent­ing the threat of nu­clear catas­tro­phe. West, like So­cial Re­al­ist painter Thomas Hart Ben­ton, merged his dream­like vi­sion with con­tem­po­rary so­cial con­cerns, es­pe­cially those af­fect­ing the His­panic and Na­tive cul­tures that in­flu­enced his art. Against th­ese back­drops of dif­fer­ing cul­tures, the dream nar­ra­tives un­fold. “I grew up in very real world. It wasn’t all just beau­ti­ful scenery. It was com­plex. I felt com­fort­able grow­ing up in a Na­tive Amer­i­can and His­panic world. I didn’t want to paint clichés of the mod­ern West. It all had a cer­tain uni­ver­sal theme to it. The love of place is uni­ver­sal.”

In his 1984 paint­ing Brain Over Cer­ril­los, a long, sinewy stem topped by a hu­man brain wrapped in barbed wire rises like Jack’s beanstalk from a small cor­ner of an iso­lated ranch in the desert. “A lot of this is about that psy­chic pain of leav­ing a place but also the com­plex­ity of hav­ing to sur­vive on a prairie or in a small vil­lage.”

West’s re­peated use of a strato­spheric van­tage stems from his life­long dreams of fly­ing. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing him on one th­ese dream flights is his younger brother Archie. An im­age of the two broth­ers, trapped in­side a block of ice and zip­ping past a sheep herders’ camp, is one of sev­eral ren­der­ings of West’s aerial fan­tasies. “We were fly­ing over this old coun­try we had grown up lov­ing. There’s a sense of nos­tal­gia but also a sense of change.”

The South­west art scene he had grown up with changed dramatically af­ter World War II. The G.I. Bill brought to the state a fresh wave of artists who ad­vanced Post­mod­ern paint­ing styles such as Min­i­mal­ism, Hard Edge, and Color Field. Nar­ra­tive, representational works were out of fa­vor. But some­thing wild sur­vived in the re­cesses of West’s sub­con­scious mind as sto­ries that needed to be told.

With the devel­op­ment of nu­clear tech­nol­ogy in New Mex­ico, the sim­ple ways of ranch life seemed des­tined to change. The dark shadow cast by early atomic tests in the desert be­came an abid­ing theme in West’s work. His Storm Cel­lar, Nu­clear Fam­ily, from 1989, for in­stance, is a de­spair­ing im­age: A gaunt and ghostly fam­ily hud­dles be­neath the Earth’s sur­face, while the land above, rav­aged by a nu­clear apoca­lypse, is lit­tered with dead grass and bones. One gets the sense that an older way of life has been pushed un­der­ground. The al­le­gor­i­cal paint­ing gets that point across more ex­plic­itly than pure ab­strac­tion.

At his first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at a Den­ver gallery, West posted lines from the Yeats poem “The Cir­cus An­i­mal’s De­ser­tion,” which spoke to him about some es­sen­tial qual­ity that re­mains when all van­ishes:

Now that my lad­der’s gone, I must lie down where all the lad­ders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

“Af­ter the war the ex­is­ten­tial­ists were ba­si­cally say­ing, ‘What do we have left?’ We don’t re­ally be­lieve in God any­more. Af­ter this hor­ri­ble war and the Holo­caust and all of that, can you still be­lieve in a lov­ing God?’” West said. “What do you have af­ter all your in­sti­tu­tions are de­cay­ing? Your own heart­felt thing. You can’t re­ally be­lieve in an af­ter­life. We bet­ter cre­ate some­thing right here if it’s go­ing to work.”

Jerry West: Storm Cel­lar, Nu­clear Fam­ily, 1989, oil on linen Right, Flight in Ice Cube Over the Old Ar­royo de Gal­lina Sheep Camp, 1990, oil on linen Op­po­site page, Lit­tle Girl Hug­ging — Clemen­tine O’Shea West, 2009, oil on ma­sonite Hal and Jerry, 1944, pho­to­graph by Robin Brooke Images cour­tesy Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press

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