blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1

Commentary on Stagecoach: The Paintings

Even a casual look at Bernard Martin’s Stagecoach paintings prompts the question, “Why?” I mean, twenty-four paintings showing the Ringo Kid (a.k.a. John Wayne) twirling a Winchester rifle, all virtually the same! Does this guy have a lot of time on his hands or what? Maybe. But perhaps it’s the “or what” that should concern us here.

In the field of visual art, painters have long held the high ground. Sure, sculptors and others have gotten a degree of recognition, but hardly that commanded by painters and paintings. Doubt this? Check Christie’s auction prices—recently Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud triptych sold for $142 million. That’s real money and makes me wonder, has this long sales record produced something like “painter envy” among artists? I’m not sure. Do novelists have “poet envy”? Probably not if they’ve checked their royalty statements lately. Anyway, Martin’s paintings depict a scene from John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach in which the Ringo Kid stops a stagecoach filled with a disparate group of passengers including a marshal, a pregnant woman, a prostitute, and an alcoholic doctor.

One fascinating aspect of this work is that it shows one medium, painting, confronting another medium, film. But film, as Martin demonstrates here, is only a series of photographs laid out one after another. So, it seems, what Martin is doing is confronting photography and, given the storyline of the film, photography’s role in constructing certain American cultural myths.

This confrontation is quite an about-face because, despite all the acclaim I’ve just mentioned, painting has been looking over its shoulder (excuse the metaphor) at photography for well over a century. In fact, the course of modern painting can be viewed as a direct response to photography. When photographs first appeared in the nineteenth century, painters quickly abandoned academic realism (photographs could do that) for a looser, more impressionistic style; they even upped the ante by using bright colors—in those days photographs were still black and white. And oh how the critics howled—“Even a child could do that!” Then, in the years before WWI, painters heightened their color palette even more and, to make matters worse, moved away from realism toward abstraction. Now, it seemed, even the children were getting out of control! And with the triumph of moving pictures in the 1930s and 40s, painters reacted by trying to imitate movement by flinging paint onto the canvas.

Fast-forward to the present. Now, with digital cameras, even a child can take a photograph. In this light, are Martin’s photograph-paintings slyly implying yes, anyone can take a photo, but not everyone can make a painting? Could be. On another level, however, questions of photography’s and film’s role in promoting American heroic myths can’t be dismissed either. And this would not be the first time Martin has used his brush (no Winchester for him) to explore such issues. Several years ago he did a large-scale painting reproducing the entire 1949 Life magazine centerfold article on Jackson Pollock, text as well as photographs. Prominently featured leaning against one of his “drip” paintings is a photo of a heroically defiant Pollock, arms and legs crossed, cigarette dangling from his lips. Below, the caption reads: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” As photograph and text become monumentalized as/in painting, is Martin proclaiming painting’s superiority? Maybe. But he also seems to be saying, “Look carefully, details matter, think about what is being implied here.”

Something similar happens in Stagecoach. Each of these twenty-four paintings, which together depict the one-second scene of the Ringo Kid stepping in front of the stagecoach and twirling his rifle in one complete revolution, represents one-twenty-fourth of a second (film speed: twenty-four frames/second). Thus Martin slows the action to a virtual crawl, not granting us the quick read, the instant glance we’ve become accustomed to with modern technology. Again, he seems to be saying, “Take time, look carefully and think, details matter.” And he’s right, details do matter. Here they show that on film the rifle’s apparent rotation is only an illusion, a tricking of the eye by the camera.

The question is, “What are we to make of this?” Is it that the very American myth of the heroic figure who stands his ground is also an illusion? And, if Martin intends his paintings of this iconic scene to be read as a stand-in for the film itself, what is he implying? Is it that we see the film against the cultural/political environment of today rather than a 1939 Hollywood version of the Old West? If this is the case, how heroic a figure can the Ringo Kid be? After all, he is a fugitive who avenges his father’s killing by taking the law into his own hands. Moreover, is the Kid redeemed when, at the end of the film, he marries Dallas, a prostitute who is on the stagecoach having been run out of town by the Law and Order League?

The validity of many of these questions depends on how expansive a view we feel these twenty-four paintings generate. From a more traditional, formalist approach, our view would be restricted (constricted?) solely to the paintings themselves (think Beardsley and Wimsatt). However, we could also argue for a wider, more postmodern perspective. After all, who today can see the Ringo Kid without also seeing John Wayne, the famous Hollywood cowboy? In other words, don’t all of his later roles now resonate within this, his breakthrough role? If so, then it means we can’t help but view the past from our perspective in the present!  

Howard Risatti is emeritus professor of contemporary art and critical theory in the Department of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has authored five books, the most recent being: A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). His work has appeared in Art Journal, The Latin American Art Journal, Woman’s Art Journal, The Studio Potter, Sculpture Magazine, Ceramics Monthly, Ceramics: Art and Perception, Monthly Ceramic Art, Winterthur Portfolio, and Britain’s Crafts Magazine, among others. He has lectured at many conferences, including the Cheongju International Craft Biennale 2003 academic symposium and CRITICAL Santa Fe: Developing Criticism in Ceramics.

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