Romancing The West is the follow-up series of paintings proceeding The Unsurrendered, which exhibited at the University of Illinois last year. The work develops an anachronistic mythology of the Knights of Infinite Progress and the Ghost Dancers. In Romancing The West, the distinction between the two groups dissolves; they seem to fall apart and reassemble, taking on aspects of each other.
Based on 19th- and early 20th-century American western paintings, I constructed three-dimensional dioramas from parts of superhero action figures, previous sculptures, polymer clay, and collage elements from comic books. The dioramas were photographed and the photos became the reference points for paintings.
The historical works upon which the dioramas were based include paintings such as “A Charge to Keep” by W.H.D. Koerner, which displayed in the oval office during George W. Bush’s administration. Bush described the painting as his favorite because he identified with the central figure on horseback. Maybe because the painting is titled after a hymn, he interpreted the figure as a circuit rider morally determined to spread Methodism across the Allegheny Mountains. The painting, in fact, was originally commissioned for a western genre short story in Country Gentleman Magazine. The main character depicted was a horse thief in the story, and the riders behind him were ranchers attempting to recover their horse. I decided, like Bush, to identify with the evangelizing horse thief and cast myself as one of the Knights of Infinite Progress.
The Needed Enemy is a theoretical concept at the center of the work and presumes that any believer in a religion or ideology needs an opposite, a non-believer diametrically opposed to the belief in order for the belief to feel necessary. In the absence of a real enemy, a needed enemy is conceptualized. The Needed Enemy is just as easily cast in present day social realities such as regional art scenes or booming economies, as in larger historical contexts such as Manifest Destiny and Western Expansion.
For other paintings such as “Black Hill,” I dedicated a section of my studio to build a mountain from larger sculptures I had to destroy. The leftovers, for me, became symbolic of what western settlers called “leaverites” (leave ‘er right there), or any excess baggage left from the dead and ill moving westward. Proceeding settlers would pick through the “leaverites” disposed at the edges of well-trod trails, which quickly spread cholera among the settlers, leaving one in three dead before arrival. Between the illness and accidental shootings by firearms meant for protection against American Indians, my ancestors died not from what they feared but from what they unknowingly spread among themselves.