The Eyes of Texas: Texas Art and Texas Light
Given what seems to be a general impression that Texas is not a hospitable place for the arts, this title might appear to promise a rather short essay. In actual fact, it will be hard to fit in even brief mentions of the best work being done here in my home state, because there is so much of it. To keep this essay short, I am forced to ignore Texas sculpture. I confine myself by temperament and personal taste to representational or figurative work—a field where I believe the discoveries and epiphanies are happening nowadays anyway. I write not as a professional art critic or connoisseur—trying to be exhaustive in coverage—but as an aspirant to the role of the art-appreciator that artists paint for, trying to see what they are after, trying to feel imaginatively what they feel when they use their amazing eyes.
For such a viewer, Texas has great rewards. For those lucky enough to live near Dallas’s Valley House Gallery and have the guidance of its remarkable owners, Kevin and Cheryl Vogel, a whole visual world opens up. Outsiders, at first glance, might see Texas art as a subset of southwest art, or think of the tradition of the cowboy artist Frederick Remington (splendidly represented in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum) or of the art of New Mexico, most notably that of Georgia O’Keeffe, or perhaps the apocalyptic Land Art of Donald Judd’s Marfa or Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch. But Texas art is a world unto itself, a world with a special flavor. There is more to Remington than the Wild West Show. O’Keeffe schooled her eye in Texas’s Palo Duro Canyon before she came to New Mexico, and her deep visual poetry is quite as much of the Panhandle as it is of Taos. The postmodern art of Judd, Marsh’s Ant Farm Collective and, for that matter, James Turrell depends upon this at first forbidding southwest landscape—and on the lover’s attention to it brought by its tenacious, courageous and inarticulately visionary settlers as they moved west. That attention is now the possession of many of Texas’s best artists.
Texas is proverbially huge and various. East Texas, with its cedar bayous and the Gulf, with its enormous hazy horizons, is utterly at odds with the cartoon Texas of the longhorn skull half-buried beside a saguaro cactus. What the Texas eye shares, though, is a common hopefulness, a sort of gritty mysticism, a quirky deadpan wit, a deep respect for craftsmanship and a passionate love of freedom in all its forms. The most obvious place to find these characteristics is in Texas landscape painting, well represented in such galleries as the Harris Gallery in Houston, the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio and the Valley House in Dallas. Amarillo’s Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum and Fort Worth’s Amon Carter, among others, give the backstory of the tradition.
Part of what makes Texas art stand out is light. With its enormous clear skies and abundant sunlight—as close to the equator as you can get without jungle vapor or searing desert harshness—Texas air presents little hindrance to direct contact with reality. Even when an artist such as Brian Cobble plays with the luscious albedo and chromatic glow of evening light on an overpass, or with the reflections of a western street in a small-town fashion store window, the light still possesses an epic frankness, a power of disclosure that is both noble and democratic. Dennis Blagg’s panoramic landscapes, like his Passover (1997), take one out further west, to the eternal vast country that evokes the Biblical deserts of the Old Testament. Patrick Gabriel captures every mood and aspect of the Texas light, from the flat, sun-baked afternoon to the pinkish thundercloud over the high-tension power lines, to the soft evening over the prairie.
Where we find the Texas light at its most intense is in the work of Bob Stuth-Wade. As El Greco painted the spiritual landscape of Toledo, Stuth-Wade paints the spiritual landscape of Big Bend and his home in the Texas hill country near San Saba. His landscapes are based upon charcoal underdrawing of great decision and power, and he has sometimes preserved versions of the underdrawings themselves so that the completed paintings can be studied in their depth and origin. Immense cloud shadows swarm over his colossal rock-buttresses, still creekbeds and scrubby desert hillsides. It is as if an Andrew Wyeth had come to a land of heroic action and had been lifted out of the refined existentialism of New England into a fresher and hotter and drier world. Stuth-Wade, like the ancient Roman painters and great Renaissance artists such as Bellini and Leonardo, sees nature as alive, free, populated with genii loci with their own spiritual power and intention. The science of the nineteenth century, with its gloomy acceptance of the inanimate and mechanistic view of the world, would have dismissed his vision as a pathetic fallacy. But the emerging science of the twenty-first century, full of self-organizing, unpredictable and autonomous dynamical systems and self-ordered turbulence even at the inanimate level of weather and geology, affirms Stuth-Wade’s intuition.
A less somber, more celebratory version of that Texas light can be found in the dancing brushstrokes of Jane K. Stark. Her gouaches, with their rhythmic tattoos and drumrolls of color and shadow, show us a Texas that expresses its natural being as delight. In an utterly different style, reminiscent of Douanier Rousseau and Hokusai, Cindi Holt’s landscapes concentrate the light into the objects themselves, each fleck of color enclosed with its own cell-membrane, the whole glowing with vitality. Blagg’s cityscapes and landscapes have the same frank light—a photorealism that is not snide but simply honest. And there is that light again, in Jim Stoker’s blazing micro-landscapes of lichens, penstemon flowers, sumacs, prairie grasses and river-weeds, where there is often no sky at all but just a wall of color. Here the decorative flair of a Jackson Pollock is put to its true use, as praise of the world we are given rather than of the artist’s own expressive ego. Texas landscape painting has a substantial tradition going back to the 1830s, always focused on the special Texas light. George Catlin, Frank Reaugh, Reveau Bassett, John C. Cowles, Anna Keener, Ben Carlton Mead and Fred Darge reveled in the way that Texas air presents even very distant details in miniature perfection. Like O’Keeffe, they were all obsessed with the vast stratified curves and infinite loneliness of Palo Duro Canyon.
Although Ann Weary’s meticulous landscape drawings leave the sky blank, the Texas light is richly embodied in her trees, limestone rock formations and long bright reaches of creek. Her peculiar technique—almost an intaglio—of using a sharply pointed eraser to etch out the highlights of leaf and stone gives a glow to her landscapes that is unique. The result is an extraordinary multiplicity of texture, indicating every variation of reflection, backlighting and saturation, and an inescapable illusion of color as the eye interprets texture as wavelength. Even the sky, untouched, seems to take on tones of pale yellow, delicate eggshell blue, bright pre-storm grey or evening pink. The technical invention is not just there for its own sake, but serves again to depict, almost by subtraction, the spiritual force that Weary perceives in nature.
Texas light is an excess of being, a current whose amperage is too high for its cable; living things shrivel when it is at its height. But it is not unfriendly to all life, and tough, persistent beings like the native yuccas and cacti and sages flourish in the buzzing heat of summer. They express their own poetry suddenly in a spire of baroque blossom, a multiplication of soft crimson prickly pears, or a blaze of tiny blue or scarlet blooms. Texas cowgirls—of whom Ann Weary is one, a fine barrel rider and fancier of quarter-horses—also flower out of that harsh and dear landscape, with their wiry physical energy, instinctive verbal wit and self-deprecation, and old-time pluck.
The Texas star is above all an emblem of freedom. Texas was once a republic of its own, and there is still some sentiment that it could, if it chose, detach its lone star from the other forty-nine and go it alone. Thousands of square miles of unfenced range lie beyond the quiet, tree-lined streets of the cities, and that broad margin inspires Texas art in many ways. But Texas freedom depends upon mastery of craft—in the old days, of the rancher’s skills of horsemanship, firearms, tracking, animal husbandry, trading and survival in the wild. With freedom must come responsibility. In the (not long past) frontier days, responsibility was not just a matter of ethics but a matter of survival. If you seek out old Texas country cemeteries, you will find written on headstones in dates, names and cryptic comments stories of amazing courage, endurance, persistence and stubborn cooperation against odds. Freedom, as they say in Texas, ain’t free.
Likewise, Texas artists take artistic freedom to mean responsibility to what they paint and mastery of technique. Ron A. Cheek has schooled himself and others in the old-master crafts of drawing, portraiture and the figure. Even indoors, the sense of the autonomy and freedom of all the inhabitants of the world, that is the leitmotif of Texas painters’ understanding of Texas light, is present. The human figure never loses its dignity in Cheek’s work because it is always recognized as capable of surprising us and itself. One of Cheek’s self-portraits, both apocalyptic and whimsical, depicts him as the risen Christ freeing himself with a pair of scissors from the shroud. In a new major triptych, Eve is depicted with a plucked but uneaten apple, surveying a cute but obviously dangerous goateed drug-dealer type in an “I ♥ NY” T-shirt; the little girl angel with the sword isn’t paying attention. The point is, unlike in much New York, California and British art, the painter does not consider his subjects as subservient to social or biological automatism, but vitally in charge of themselves. Though by no means a pious artist, Cheek does have a religious sense of a human being’s inner spiritual life, seeing it as Texas landscapists see the free spirit of the land.
Many Texas artists have a religious—though never denominationally orthodox—vision. The state can boast a major visionary mystical artist, in the spirit of William Blake, St. John of the Apocalypse or Stanley Spencer, the English visionary of the mid-twentieth century. John Cobb is not yet much known, but his work blazes with original and unmistakable mystical experience. Often his egg tempera paintings are set against skies or backgrounds of gold leaf, like Greek icons or the altarpieces of Piero della Francesca. Yet the frankly biblical subjects are set in contemporary Texas, with a rancher, a Texas barn and an Angus cow in the hidden nativity scene, or the Virgin Mary as a Tejana girlchild sitting on a burro under the care of a Rio Grande farmer Saint Joseph. Cobb’s paintings contain deep allegories of obscure meaning. Christ is crucified in the painter’s studio, a man in a black coat waves aside Christ’s fall under the cross. One feels that mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the heart-shaking, terrifying and fascinating mystery—that Rudolf Otto describes as the core of religious experience. Though Cobb’s subjects are the fare of sentimental and comforting cliché religious art, his treatment of them raises them to another pitch altogether, one of profound psychological insight, searing moral concern and a sort of spiritual shock or existential destabilization. In other words, Cobb’s religious works are freeing, not confining. They perceive religious matters as a wild frontier, not as a comfortable refuge from reality.
Texas portraiture has also somehow caught the spirit of that free Texas light. To my mind, much contemporary portraiture today, in its quest for honesty, critique of representational norms and conventions or attempt at originality, slights or ignores the dignity of the human subject. Texas artists such as Cheek, Sedrick Huckaby and Michael Osbaldeston give us human characters whom we respect and feel honored to have in our home. Osbaldeston, in particular, with his huge painterly full-face portraits, built up thickly with an extraordinary palette using the full range of colors, presents human beings as the archetypal and mysterious beings that they are. The portraits are not exactly flattering, but they are beautiful, because one senses their autonomy, their inner life, their spirit. More existentially pessimistic works from the east and west coasts tend to emphasize the way in which their subject has been crushed into a stereotype or a victim. Again, the belief in freedom that Texas artists evince affects their actual technique; freedom and dignity, as their enemies know, go together. Huckaby’s Big Momma (2007) portraits are devastatingly honest to the sick, overweight and life-battered old woman they depict; but she is also a hero of humanity, a monument of dignity in survival, a grand figure whom love has transformed into something very beautiful.
Huckaby is a major recent discovery. His masterpiece, A Love Supreme (1965), so enormous that it took up an entire room in Dallas’s fine McKinney Avenue Contemporary Gallery, depicts a quilt whose emotional power is overwhelming. This young artist combines an amazingly bold way with color with a great heart and a powerfully free technique. For Huckaby, the meaning of freedom is home—it is the place where you can be who you are, and where love creates a defense against all that is cold and inhuman.
Above all, Texas artists seem to have kept faith with art’s central value, which is beauty. That commitment is most explicit in the work of three artists who have the doubtful honor of being academics as well as artists: Lyle Novinsky, Mary Vernon and Barnaby Fitzgerald. Novinsky combines the great tradition of Catholic Christian religious imagery with the boldness of a thoroughly contemporary artist. For him, beauty—expressed in the color-glow of physical objects when lit by pure light—is the hallmark of the divine. He is currently working on a grand mosaic Transfiguration for the altar of the University of Dallas’s chapel in Rome. Mary Vernon’s sense of beauty has everything to do with color. She has the widest and most varied palette of any colorist I know—in this she resembles Matisse. Her utterly improbable color combinations are always new and somehow always work.
In Barnaby Fitzgerald, the Texas sensibility is wonderfully married to the classical European tradition back through the Renaissance to classical Rome and Greece. Son of Robert Fitzgerald, the great classicist and translator of Homer and Virgil, he is a full inheritor of the old world without being enslaved to it. He comes out of the atmosphere of the Texas Renaissance of the 1960s, associated with the rise of the University of Texas in Austin to national prominence with major libraries, the exciting journal Arion and such important classicists as William Arrowsmith, Robert Fagles and Guy Davenport. He uses the freedom of Matisse and Picasso in dealing with classical material, but recovers the classic line of Greek sculpture in handling the figure. But then he adds his own philosophy of the daily miracle—the way natural spirits burst without warning into an ordinary scene of food-preparation, domestic marriage or hanging out the wash, with a heart-stopping access of beauty. For him, as for the ancients, the physical world is already full of spirit: “In an age of ever more refined and powerful mechanical and electronic means of fabrication and reproduction, painting remains so messily and tenderly human….The very physicality of the thing itself and all that went into its making—the dryness, thickness, fluidity, texture, pigments, and the other aspects which the painter must weigh and manipulate—are dear to me.” Decrying much contemporary art and criticism, he says: “I don’t understand those…who claim to be tired of beauty. It is as if beauty was a tired old recipe, and we, jaded diners all, needed to feed on something that had been fashionably ‘tweaked’ into novelty. As for me, I continue to batten on Beauty, and I allow myself to believe that there are many who would agree.” Many Texas artists, even if less verbally expressive, would indeed concur. And even when Fitzgerald is at his most classical, his paintings are still lit by that large, free Texas light.