MSB brainstorming

21 December 2008

Proximity Magazine's Theory Column: Artists Write; DAVID REED: "Jackson Pollock and Piero della Francesca Ride Lonesome"

Proximity magazine number 3 has just been released. One of the features, as mentioned before here, is edited by your friendly EuroShark. I am organizing short theoretical essays from other active artists. The Proximity editors are also gracious enough to allow us to publish the essays on Sharkforum as well as in their magazine. They would love subscribers, though!

This issue and the next issue feature a wonderful two part essay I solicited from renowned NYC painter, David Reed, titled Jackson Pollock and Piero della Francesca Ride Lonesome. Here is the first part ...

Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things

Proximity's first essay for its Theory Series is by the renowned New York painter David Reed. In addition to exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the world he recently helped organize the significant exhibition "High Times - Hard Times, New York Painting 1967-1975." His article will be presented in two parts.

Jackson Pollock and Piero della Francesca Ride Lonesome, Part 1

-- David Reed

As a young painter I went to live and paint in the desert of the Southwest. I was fascinated by the unlimited, unlocated space of Jackson Pollock's paintings and felt that I had found an equivalent in the vistas of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. By painting the Big Space of the landscape I hoped to better understand Pollock's space and learn how to use it in painting. At the time I didn't realize how much my view of this space -- both in the landscape and in Pollock's paintings -- had been determined by the western movies I had seen while growing up.

Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome (Ranown/Columbia, 1959) is a spare, 73- minute CinemaScope western, shot in only 12 days. The director of photography is Charles Lawton, Jr., and the script is by Burt Kennedy. It is seventh in a series of eight westerns starring Randolph Scott, directed by Boetticher and produced by Scott, Boetticher and Harry Joe Brown. Westerns are always variations on classic prototypes. The films in this cycle continue classic western themes, yet they also break these traditions in wildly inventive ways. Since the same star, director, producers, writers, and cinematographers worked together in this series, the films are unusually collaborative in conception. Watching this film, one senses the freshness of quick, instinctive decisions.

To be understood, this movie must be seen on a large screen in CinemaScope. Then the screen opens to vision as does a painting by Pollock. The space and light are vast and unlimited, yet the story is very simple. This contrast creates the tensions and meanings in the movie.

The narrative is a journey lasting 72 hours, 3 days and 3 nights. Alternations of day to night and of night to day mark each of the three main locations: the Wells Junction swing station, Dobie's corral, and the hanging tree.

There are six characters in the story, five men and one woman: Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott), Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts), Billy John (James Best), Frank John (Lee Van Cleef), Wid (James Coburn), and Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele).

All the scenes are outdoors, surrounded by swirling dust and distant mountains. There is a visual balance between the human figures and the landscape. Neither dominates. This is like the balanced figure/ground relationship in Jackson Pollock's overall space and it has the same effect. Watching this movie, one is constantly visually alert, scanning the whole landscape and trying to take it all in. One is always aware of how each detail it fits into the whole.

More than most directors of Westerns, Boetticher has an rare appreciation and understanding of horses. They appear in most scenes. The first line is 'spoken' by a horse; the second, to a horse. Horses are as important as the human characters, tying them to the landscape. When Boone proposes to Mrs. Lane, inviting her to live a fantasy life with him on his ranch, she is saddling her horse, and he walks towards her leading his. It's almost as if the horses need to talk and the humans are simply there to help them.

Ride Lonesome is not a psychological western. It's about movement through space, time, location and light. The only interior scene is a view out from the swing station porch. This framed view of the landscape is the fulcrum from which the journey begins. We watch Brigade, Mrs. Lane, Boone, Billy and Wid file by individually. Later we see Frank and the boys ride through the same framed view, repeating the path followed by the others -- one so clear it could be diagrammed.

There are two contrasting locations: Santa Cruz, where Billy is to be turned in, and Boone's homestead in Socorro. The domestic interior life which Boone fantasizes he can live with Mrs. Lane and Wid is unlike anything in the outdoor scenes. However, having viewed the landscape from an interior at the station, we feel Boone can reach his goal.

It's tempting to write of composition when writing of the scenes in this movie, but as in Pollock's paintings, that is really not what is going on. The camera is almost always moving, showing figures from below when close-up and from above when further away. There is a classic CinemaScope scene in which the camera travels alongside Brigade and Boone as they ride talking on horseback. As we move along with them we are aware before they are of the Mescaleros appearing over hills on the far left of the screen. Motion either from the camera or within the scene is what is important, not composition. Boone doesn't just leave a scene, he throws Wid a rifle. We identify with this movement and CinemaScope gives the gesture a remarkable naturalness, as direct and immediate as the gestures in Pollock's paintings.

Just before he charges Brigade in their final showdown, Frank sits motionless on his horse and one notices the trees blowing gently behind him. This movement in the trees, while Frank and Brigade are frozen, has an eerie but naturalistic quality. At this moment of final confrontation we don't identify with the human characters but with the landscape instead.

End of Part 1, to be continued next issue.

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