In my recent work, I appropriate stills primarily from the Western film genre. References to the films serve as departure points into more abstract visual fields and meditations on the spiritual condition of the “colonist,” an archetype within my meta-construct of “The Religion.”
Two concepts are key in the work: the Frontier and the Wilderness. The Frontier evaporates with the compression of time and space at the advent of the railroad, under the ideological banner of “progress” and religious decree to “civilize.” The Wilderness in various religious traditions is a kind of primordial darkness from which creation is possible. The work implicitly asks the question, how does the colonist lose what Aldous Huxley calls the “Old World” self, or what Julia Kristeva calls “Oceanic Feeling” and what does he find in its absence?
The use of Western genre imagery is a strategic choice. Inheriting a legacy of colonization well documented by European painters of the 18th and 19th centuries, I symbolically align myself with the Colonist/Settler because this is the best way to emphasize the sense redemptive yearning familiar to me in the practice of painting. When I talk about the Colonist I am both referring to history and to the present day, that is, to the descendants of colonists and settlers, who have inherited the collective narrative and subjectivities of our ancestors.
Presently, I am focusing on films in which either white characters are adopted into American Indian tribes or white actors play native characters. I want to point to a postindustrial ambivalence revealed through the fetishizing of native imagery. I am interested in examining a certain cultural anxiety expressed through a desire for a simpler and more deeply felt experience of being alive in the world as well as a self-conscious need to reconcile historical atrocities with mainstream progress narratives.
Sometimes quotes or situations within the films determine to some extent the manner in which I paint. For example, a scene in “Little Big Man” (Dustin Hoffman plays an adopted Cheyenne warrior) depicts a fight between him and a cavalryman. Hoffman shouts, “Do I have to cut your throat for you to see that I’m white? Now give me something to wipe this paint off with!”
Now I begin every studio session by using my palette knife to remove or pick out half-dried paint from a canvas or panel I worked on previously. It feels like picking scabs or dry skin, which seems appropriate somehow. In trusting the process, I find that it makes the paintings feel aged and without a definite sense of when they were made.
I want the paintings to have the feeling of vague recollection, a memory that starts to form but disappears. Something scintillant. Something that for a moment might be capable of divorcing the modern human from the profane or simulated environment while suggesting a feeling of the sacred or profoundly real. Because reconnection with unfamiliar, past ways of life is impossible, an inner confusion arrises out of the redemptive yearning itself; the colonist who is barely or not-at-all conscious of his identity as such is at the heart of what the work is about.