blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Revisiting Stagecoach
In Memoriam

Stagecoach Paintings Animation
 Stagecoach: The Paintings, Frames 1–24
 photos and animation by Lee Brauer

Bernard Martin, a pillar of the Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond arts communities, died on Christmas Eve 2021 at the age of eighty-six.

To remember him and his life as a painter, we are returning to an animation of the paintings that made up the Stagecoach: The Paintings exhibition, which opened at Gallery A in Richmond on November 18, 2013, and ran through January 19, 2014. This animation of the paintings, echoing but not actually replicating the experience of the film, was included in the exhibition.

The paintings, by obsessively tackling a moment of classic American iconography, direct us to question our relationships with image and representation and how we use them as facile markers for national or cultural identity. They also address the role that painting itself can continue to play in a technologically charged world where pictures pixelate through our perception so quickly that they risk becoming visual flotsam, abandoning their role in helping us to focus our eye and fix our attention.

Martin stated of his work:

At eighteen minutes thirty seconds into John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach, a stagecoach with a group of motley passengers is seen heading into a desert, which is under threat of a hostile Indian uprising. At the sound of a gunshot there is an abrupt cut and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), with upraised rifle, carrying a saddle, and squinting into the sun, stops the stagecoach, climbs to a seat beside the driver and becomes a passenger for one of cinema’s most iconic trips.

Stagecoach: The Paintings is a series of twenty-four sequential paintings based on the twenty-four consecutive frames of film—exactly one second of movie time—which immediately follows the eighteen minute thirty second cut. Change is little from one frame to the next, but during this one second the camera moves ever so slightly towards the Ringo Kid while his rifle makes a complete revolution as it recocks.

The concerns of Stagecoach: The Paintings are several. Obviously, the myth of the frontier and its impact on culture and politics is of primary importance. Using popular culture’s most persuasive medium—the motion picture—Ford seemed to codify this myth into one of its most complete and defined forms. Arguably, with this film, at this frame, the myth found its most successful embodiment: John Wayne. The series of paintings also continues my ongoing interest with the language of painting as it relates to other forms of communication. Working in an age which processes information in brief fractions of a second there is, for me, a level of meaning in spending months giving physical existence to images which were never intended to be seen individually but only as impermanent flickers of projected light. This meaning I have yet to fully fathom.

As art historian critic Howard Risatti noted of the piece, “Martin seems to be saying, ‘Take time, look carefully and think, details matter.’ And he’s right, details do matter.”  

Blackbird’s 2013 presentation of Stagecoach: The Paintings and 2018 presentation of Perhaps He Should Have Stayed in the City can be found on Bernard Martin’s page in our index..

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