PAINTINGS: A Year Later in Tangier I Heard She Was Dead

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Richard Bledsoe “A Year Later in Tangier I Heard She was Dead”

acrylic on canvas 12″ x 12″

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The genre was once referred to as History Painting, and it was considered the highest form of artistic expression. For hundreds of years, ambitious artists poured their skills into epic works which depicted scenes from not only history, but from religion, mythology, and literature as well.

The Modern Art era did a lot to sever visual art from this traditional engagement with story telling. This was a huge mistake.There’s nothing to be gained from trying to substitute theoretical intellectual stylings for the passion, drama and resonance of imagery inspired from narrative, whether derived from reality or imagination.

The Remodernist artist is a story teller, visually defining essential moments in the never ending action of the world, the mind, and the spirit.

A few years back I launched into a series of paintings inspired by a favorite book: Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs. Its controversial reputation obscures many of the elements that I really enjoy about it. It’s totally disjointed and incoherent compared to a conventional novel, but amongst the fragments it is built from are elements of hard boiled noir mysteries, adventure tales, paranoid science fiction, wicked humor, cheap porno, and most poignantly, autobiography.

Burroughs was the black sheep son of wealthy parents. His drug habits and homosexuality kept him in trouble and on the run in the 1940s and 1950s. He and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer wound up in Mexico City. In 1951 an awful event occurred. While they were wasted and partying, Burroughs suggested to Joan it was time for “their William Tell routine.” Joan put a glass on top of her head. Burroughs tried to shoot it off and missed, hitting and killing Joan instead. It was a stupid spontaneous act that haunted Burroughs for the rest of his days. He fled to Morocco and sank into severe addiction. It was in this deranged state he wrote the rambling pages that his friend  Jack Kerouac later assembled at random and typed into the manuscript that became Naked Lunch.

Many of my “Naked Lunch” paintings are crude, rough, and unfinished, which suits the subject matter. I flipped through the book, and just like Burroughs wrote by scrambling random words together, I pulled out random quotes to base my paintings on.

“A Year Later in Tangier I Heard She was Dead” is the best of the series, so far. Painted a few years ago, I remember how moved I was by the quote when I read it. I read into it the futility of denial, and how truth and remembrance must have kept getting through to Burroughs even through his drug haze. It’s haunting, and I feel this painting captures the same sense of sadness and accusation.

PAINTINGS: Nosecone Art

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Art as invocation, with a cameo appearance of Kilroy enjoying the view

The current establishment art world cultivates insularity and isolation as a means to prop up the vapid, dysfunctional art they favor. From sterile white box galleries to haughty elitist attitudes, lots of effort is poured into erecting barriers to separate the experience of art from the despised masses and the realities of life.

But art does not exist to be plaything for decadent crypto-Marxist hipsters. It is a vital outpouring of the human soul, a visual method of spiritual communication. Art can take on surprising and spontaneous forms in the strangest places to remind us of who we really are.

A species of folk art arose when we started taking our wars into the skies. In World War I, for a time the fighting aircraft were painted with bright colors and bold designs that evoked heraldry, like pilots were knights jousting in the air. This was abandoned once it was realized camouflage-type coloration increased survival rates.

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The Red Baron: Looks cool, but makes a very good target

But even after the overall military plane paint jobs were made to blend the sky, water or land,  the crews of planes created art on them, adding a little twist of character and personality in the midst of the industrial scale organization and danger of war.

These weren’t the polite expressions of a genteel upper crust. These images were the anonymous graffiti of common guys living on the edge. Pinup girls, cartoon characters, and catch phrases decorated aircraft that were made to engage the enemy, to kill or be killed. As bands of men were sent to face destruction or victory, they adorned their aircraft with images of jokes, icons of power and lovely ladies. That’s the spirit.

These were images that said we’re coming to kick your ass to protect the things we love. Such a meaningful expression of human endurance and defiance in the face of overwhelming adversity is completely lacking in the cloistered stylings of establishment art today. What our cultural institutions are serving up is completely inadequate for the troubled times we live in.

May we come to have an art with the urgency of a beautiful woman painted on a mighty flying machine, sent off on a mission of life or death.

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Visit my other posts to view the state of the arts.

Update 2: Some wiser men than me have let me know the correct term should be “nose art” or “fuselage art.”  I appreciate the update.

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EXPLOITS: Stills From The Movies In My Mind

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Richard Bledsoe “Two Doctors” acrylic on canvas 24″ x 30″

How do artists decide what imagery to depict?

The possibilities are endless.

I often say before I start into a new work, “What am I going to paint? It could be anything.” Since I am an intuitive artist, working not from observation but from visions that arise in my mind, the potential subject matter is limited only by the freedom of imagination and the skill I have to render it visible.

Other artists might work in the great traditions of landscape, still life, portraiture, or figurative painting. I’ve come to realize that the visions I present are a blend of all these different explorations into a single unified image. I’m sort of a mutant form of a history painter, the genre once considered the highest form in the hierarchy of Western art, but much neglected in the modern and contemporary art worlds.

The difference is story telling. Rather than make a detached work of art for art sake’s, emphasizing merely formal concerns, history painting depicts a moment of drama. It shows action arrested for contemplation, rich in implications of past, present, and future activity. It injects the element of time, suggests consequences and resolutions are pending, and extends the liveliness of the art beyond the edges of the canvas.

I gained insight into the nature of my painting by going back to first principles, and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was 7 years old, quite possibly the perfect age to have seen that movie. I spent my whole youth wanting to be a film maker. And 10 years later, in 1987, that’s what I went off to college to try to be.

What I learned along the way during my college years was it was very hard to work collaboratively with all the people needed to bring together a major project like a movie. And not only that, in academia, for the most part the need was to act as a cog in someone else’s machine, working on someone else’s project.

Technological advances have made creative control at lot more feasible at the entry level these days, but this was the 1980s. Film was an expensive and unwieldy undertaking.

However, I made another discovery in college: painting. From the first moment I tackled a big surface as a student project I was hooked, although it took a long while and several changes of majors to understand this. But now I’ve been painting seriously for 25 years, and it remains as fascinating as ever.

I’ve found the way to show my vision and tell my stories without needing the resources of a film studio. As I’ve gained comprehension of my art, I’ve been clearer about what it is I do.

I’m showing you stills from the movies in my mind. The possibilities are endless.

ARTISTS: Jackson Pollock’s Arizona Connections

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Pollock: An artist of the West

January 28th 2015 would have been the 103rd birthday of artist Jackson Pollock. Pollock is considered one of the giants of the modern art world. One of his paintings is currently recognized as the third most expensive ever:  “No. 5, 1948” sold for $140 million in 2006. His signature drip style is instantly recognizable; he was the subject of an Academy Award winning biopic in 2000; his reputation as a surly and focused flinger of paint helped shaped the public’s conception of what an artist is like for decades.

But in many ways, Jackson Pollock represents where the art world went wrong, when the bitter fragmentation of Modernist thought gained visibility and momentum, further severing the appreciation of serious art from the general audience.

An awkward and immature individual without much conventional talent, Pollock did have passion and persistence. His original breakthrough paintings were blunt, primal depictions of archetypal imagery absorbed from Jungian therapy. But then Pollock was taken on by the radical critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg projected his materialistic ideology onto Pollack’s intuitive art, and encouraged him to emphasize the formal aspects of his work, all the better to manifest Greenberg’s agenda.

An abrasive bully, Greenberg was the leading advocate of the banal reduction of painting to a mere substance on a surface, accompanied by scads of verbose dogma. It was under his influence Jackson arrived at the drip style that came to define and limit him at the same time.

The public scoffed at this abstract art, the elitists scoffed back, and the fractures in our society deepened. But in the middle of all this, there remains Pollock the man, the artist, who struggled and suffered, and took chances; for that he deserves respect. He was driven to create, and tried to find a way to transcend his limited skills.

The drip paintings were not random accidents; analysis shows how Pollock reworked his surfaces using brushes, adding glazes, making corrections, utilizing his judgment to enhance his creations. Even in his declining years Jackson continued to make art, moving away from the drip paintings, which he found to be an ultimately unrewarding stylistic dead end, and back towards the figurative, mythic work of his original explorations. Who knows what he would have created had he survived longer.

Pollock’s end in a drunken car crash is infamous, but less known are the stories of his origins. Everybody starts somewhere, and Arizona plays a significant role in Pollock’s early years.

In September of 1913, a young family set out in a wagon hired from a stable at the corner of Van Buren and Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Roy Pollock was taking his wife Stella and his five sons to the new home he had bought for them, a 20-acre farm located about 6 miles east of the city, on the road to Tempe.

Paul Jackson Pollock, the youngest son, probably didn’t remember much of his life before this, in Cody, Wyoming; he wasn’t even 2 years old yet. But the future action painter and tragic art celebrity would spend a large part of his boyhood in the Valley of the Sun and other Arizona locations.

Roy Pollock’s farm on Sherman Street was simple; an adobe house, a barn, corral, and an outhouse. Roy planted alfalfa and many other vegetables, raised hogs, cows and chickens, and gained a reputation for producing some of the best crops and livestock in the Valley. His older sons helped out with the chores, but not Jackson. During these early years he was a sensitive child, who stayed close to the house and his mother; he was afraid of the wild desert landscape outside the borders of the irrigated farmland. Having tea parties and playing house with a little girl who lived nearby were among his favorite pursuits.

Despite his timid ways, Jackson did have his boyish adventures. He and the other kids would swim in the periodically flooded irrigation ditches. He’d hang out by the road waiting for the mailman’s car to go by; automobiles were a rarity then. He would ride into town with his father and see the Indians, Mexicans and Chinese in the marketplace, and visit Goldwater’s Department Store at the corner of First Street and Adams. Jackson idolized his oldest brother Charles, who was considered the artist of the family; Charles even received painting lessons from a neighbor.

In less happy events, Jackson managed to get his right index figure tip chopped off with an axe in a clumsy accident with another boy; the detached finger apparently got eaten by a rooster. Another time he was in a wagon wreck with his mother, when a bull charged and panicked their horse. Jackson had nightmares about the incident for the rest of his life.

Conditions were harsh in early Phoenix life. The family actually dragged their beds outside and slept for much of the year in their front yard, trying to deal with the intense heat. Stella Pollock was unhappy with the rustic lifestyle, and Roy had a hard time making money even with his skillful farming. So in May 1917 the family auctioned off their farm and belongings and moved on to California, where their situation continued to deteriorate.

Before long Roy had returned to Arizona without his family, supporting them long distance by working as a surveyor. Stella restlessly moved the family from town to town in California, never able to find a comfortable situation for her and the boys. In 1923 she moved the family back to Arizona, staying for a while at the Carr Ranch north of Globe and Miami. Eleven-year-old Jackson was no longer the fearful kid he had been before; he spent much of his free time hiking and hunting along the Salt River.

In 1924 the Pollock family, still without the father, left Arizona again, but later Jackson would return to live here one more time. In 1927 he got a job alongside his father working for a surveying crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Jackson at 15 was the youngest of the crew; he tried to fit in by drinking heavily along with the other men, the first signs of the terrible alcoholism which devastated his life. When summer was over he returned to high school in California and never lived in the state again.

When Jackson Pollock was at the height of his career as an abstract expressionist, he was called a cowboy throwing lariats of paint. His technique was compared to Native American sand paintings and tribal art. It’s hard to estimate how much his formative years in Arizona influenced the artist he became.

Recently I became aware of another unexpected facet of Pollock’s personality. When a photographer visited Pollock’s 1950’s New York home, now preserved as a museum, she noticed the kitchen was stocked with high end cookware for the era. Further research revealed Jackson and his wife artist Lee Krasner liked to cook, to host dinner parties, and they left behind an array of recipes. In addition there was documentation of various health foods and beverages Jackson used to combat his alcoholism, unfortunately without success.

The photographer, Robyn Lea, ended up collecting her detective work and anecdotes into a new book, In The Kitchen With Jackson Pollock, which is well beyond my budget. But there’s something I find moving about these nuances of character this knowledge reveals. For a little awhile at least, even during the throes of celebrity and myth making, there were moments of domesticity. Pollock and Krasner knew the humble pleasure of creating a good meal, and sharing it with friends.

Jackson Pollock, Jack the Dripper, drunken art rebel of the midcentury, was also a foodie who enjoyed baking.

This simple activity humanizes him more than anything else I’ve learned about him.

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A Jackson Pollock recipe that kind of resembles his paintings

An earlier version of this article was previously featured in The Western Free Press.