Proscenium Series

The “Proscenium” series of oil paintings relate to five thousand miles of interstate highway travel across the American West over the course of ten months to care for my father on his own inevitable journey with cancer. The primary signifier centers upon recognizing the demarcations of the heavily industrialized world that slip into every view, and not allowing the “suspension of disbelief” that removes these important signifiers in favor of a romanticized West. This parallels the mindset necessary in caring for my father, who was iconic to those who knew him as a stoic and self-reliant Western cattleman and rancher- and his loss from himself as the cancer, radiation, and chemotherapy physically wore him down. There are ten completed Proscenium works to date.











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Finished this one at last, and since it was still -20 outside with 50 to 70 mph winds, I kept going on the snow theme.

The wind blew hard enough to move the Mustang (that’s usually around 80mph or better) as we made the pass. The tall orange flexi-rod attached to the highway reflector guides the snowplows in ground blizzards and heavy snowfall. As luck would have it, the best shot landed the pole smack in the middle of the composition.

This is from a 67 year old photograph of my dad playing cowboy in his new cowboy getup. Of course, he already lived on a cattle ranch and had a pony…so I guess it would be more accurate to say he was playing Gunslinger. Guess what he did when he grew up…
You may not be thinking “Gunslinger”, but he was a Deputy Sheriff in Yellowstone County and still has his 6-shot revolver and leather holster- much closer to “Gunslinger” than modern law enforcement.

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This photo seems like it would make the candidate pool for  painting, but it is too deliberate and sells itself too readily. In the same manner, this explanation is a work in-progress.

“Proscenium” is a term from the theater that describes the “fourth wall” ie the invisible barrier that separates the play/actors from the audience. Inherent in this separation is also the audience’s “suspension of disbelief”- or allowing that the play has a certain reality that is self-contained. The ability to transport the viewer, through the complex synergy of adjusting the context of the viewer, is also part of the “Proscenium” concept- the magic 4th wall resonates on both sides of the stage.
The Proscenium paintings contain many “fourth wall” separations. Such separations include: the ideal Western landscape and the real Western landscape; the visually accessible vs the physically inaccessible; the passage of time moving the audience through a narrative/landscape; the outer world v the inner space of the car; the separation from the active forces of the world by the windshield’s invisible barrier; the illusion of safety and the nearness of death.
The original photograph itself is another removal/abstraction wherein the camera acts as an autonomic eye capturing vast quantities of imagery with an incredibly limited ability for the photographer (who is an appendage of the process) to adjust the image for composition, theme, time of day- a true snapshot aesthetic.  This process neutralized the photograph, allowing another layer of removal- which forces all choice and meaning to the painting.
Theater occurs in painting the image, as this creates the essential
access of an implied narrative.

Estrangement from the landscape is an essential aspect of the Proscenium series. A first motivation is also recognizing the demarcations of the heavily industrialized world that slip into every view, and not allowing the “suspension of disbelief” that removes these important signifiers in favor of a romanticized story of the West. The method for gathering the images follow certain parameters. The first is that I do not take the pictures- I drive the car at a steady 75+mph and Elizabeth shoots. My only direction to her is to shoot for landscape, and allow for everything that constitutes the landscape. This removal of myself from creating the primary images mirrors the separation of automobile travel and the travelers’ essential estrangement from the surrounding landscape. It also illustrates the disconnected abstraction of existence for the industrialized person, which in the Western “First” World is everyone.

 There is an implied complicit assent of burning the world down through existing as an American- the images are taken from within an iconic “American” car (assembled in America with parts manufactured elsewhere around the world), on an interstate highway system that reaches to every corner of the nation and is surrounded and inundated with petroleum and travel-based industries, the images are taken with a Japanese camera that will download images to a laptop which will download to a website, electronics which are powered through coal burning power plants, the paintings are made in a Hospice facility at a comfortable 70 degrees while the outside temperature is -34. That 104 degree difference is the fever-dream that shimmers in the mind: the real Proscenium that confuses the play of destructive progress with the industrial living death that is the common life of the Western World.

These Proscenium images are certainly Vanitas images in the painting tradition of the Memento Mori.
My own narrative of personal wilderness immersions v industrially hovering near the landscape (car travel) offers an underlying narrative to the reason for all the travel of the past year. The motivation of travel reaches toward the loss of a way of life and the loss of a way of being that is irreversible. This is the loss of the traditional American farm/ranch, which has been in my family on my father’s side for more than 100 years. In his lifetime the horse has been replaced by machinery, the self-sustaining ranch of dairy cows, chickens, and a vegetable garden being a part of the household has disappeared, and the lost personal relationship with nature as a living primacy in day-to-day life. The travel is due to the spread of cancer through my father, as certain and finite as the unseen forces that demand the existence of the ribbon of interstate and all that border it.

The unchecked exponential growth of the human race tears down the world, and as “natural resources” are compromised along with financial collapse the terminal rate of malignant human impact on the world  (the symptomatic issues of massive oceanic die-offs and dead zones and floating continents of plastic, melting polar caps, and the exploding extinction rate of every terrestrial life form- insects, animals, birds, plants), well, it is all too simple to compare humanity to cancer. A cancer that is entering a final stage, that will effectively kill the biosphere.

The Proscenium is the theater of the mind, the abstraction of soft thoughts to distract from the Real, encouraging the rapid dispersal and expansion of the all-pervasive cancer. In our long lived national fantasy of the untrammeled American West, this Narrative fantasy contains the sub-narrative of the Real.  One has simply to undo the magical edit of the mind and consider not only what is in the narrative of the painting, but the narrative of car, travel, road, infrastructure, and beyond these symptoms to the massive scale of destruction that allows any of it. In this way the intent of the painting can emerge.
The tipping point is long past, and humanity, like cancer, is incapable of halting themselves from destroying their host. Not a new truth, but an essential sub-narrative of the paintings that helps illuminate the direction they lead.

from 12/17/08:
In the span of June-Nov I found myself driving from KS to MT, MT to
UT, UT to KS, KS to UT, UT to MT, MT to UT, UT to MT, and MT to UT.
This time behind the wheel moving across the amazing Western landscape
juxtaposed itself with prior summers of mine as a mountaineer in Colorado, as
well as the time spent in the saddle and walking the expansive MT ranch. This past summer/fall road travel became my time in the
landscape- in the summer with the convertible top down, in winter with
the wind roaring through the holes in the old top with the sound of sitting near a small
waterfall- just enough to blur music to a background curiosity.
is an illusion that one is not really in the landscape, that the
windshield is somehow similar to a TV screen or a theater stage; but an
errant deer or antelope, or a patch of ice hidden in a tight canyon
curve, or a tire going, or engine trouble, or a truck drifting into my
lane- all possibilities of suddenly coalescing out of the odd spacial
warp of time/distance, emerging suddenly from the false security of the
illusory proscenium.

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This is from a photo of my sister and I with my father (at 42) when she was 12 and I was 10 in 1978. I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning. Now I can see what is wrong with Karen’s face…man. Really can’t fix that without a major re-do. Maybe I’m the only one who sees it. yeah, right.

This afternoon I put in a few hours more and came up with this scene near the Idaho/MT border. The cold has settled in here in MT (-34!), perfect painting weather.

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the sun had set when I shot this latest version, so don’t believe what you see for color here…just figure that it didn’t go quite as poorly as it seems. Tomorrow I head back to the foundry for wax work, so it will be a few days before further changes occur. That should give it time to dry a bit.

Saturday I put in a few hours snowing a bit more on the central peak while E read out loud from our sheepy mystery: Three Bags Full. Today (Monday) I added in the power station and the row of bushes in the morning, then remembered I hadn’t taken a picture of Saturday’s changes. 

The relative abstraction of the forms from the underpainting winding through the foreground are quite a nice contrast with the storm/peaks,

The storm begins to emerge from the underpainting…I introduced another blue to the palette.

The underpainting sets the composition and tonal notes. I mixed piles of neutrals with the pallet knife using brown, blue, ochre, and white.

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