This review was originally published by Nashville Arts Magazine. That piece was edited for length. The following version restores the review to its original word count.
Nashville painter Casey Pierce’s new series of large narrative paintings depicts scenes from the Old West. But, while these canvases are loaded with badmen, bullets and buttes, they’re also brimming with references to the history Western civilization in general.
New West previewed at Threesquared this past January. The paintings reveal America’s cowboy mythologizing while simultaneously recalling the cinematic sources that have celebrated and perpetuated these legends. The artist paints in his living room and we talked through the series, unrolling each un-stretched canvas on the floor – one on top of the next – turning the pages on a new kind of penny dreadful 100 years removed from the source.
“The paintings relate to the Wild West, of course, but they also reference Western philosophy,” explains Pierce.
One of Pierce’s most obvious references is “Plato’s Cave.” The painting depicts a monumental, sun-blasted landscape straight out of a John Ford film. The striking scene is framed by an opening in a cave. The opening is shaped like a profile of a human brain and it separates the dramatically illuminated background from the formidable foreground which is engulfed in a deep, black, figure-less shadow.
“This is a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave,” says Pierce. “I wanted to put the viewer inside the cave looking out with the directive ‘ESCAPE’ superimposed on their vision. The inside of the cave represents obscurity and the outside represents clarity. Escape from the cave is found in the inner understanding of the outside world”
Pierce included an early version of “Plato’s Cave” at his Threesquared opening, but the piece now includes the addition of the painted text of the word “ESCAPE” running across the image. Pierce renders the letters in such a way that they don’t simply become an obscuring “top” layer – parts of some letters clearly dominate the nearest foreground, but other parts of other letters duck behind the mountains in the background or hover in the mouth of the cave. The text serves to make the viewer more aware of the painting’s dichotomous depth of field while also pointing a finger it’s possible interpretation.
“The piece is loaded already because of the title, but there needed to be more surface information,” says Pierce. “Plus it gave me a chance to get my Wayne White out.”
The girl in “Pony” wears a cowboy hat and a black mask that recalls the recently rebooted Lone Ranger. In Hollywood, the Western heroine is a rare breed and “Pony” calls to mind celluloid tough gals like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. Pierce renders abstract flowers in static swatches of color that cover the prairie behind the girl and even break past the lines that define her face, making her appear semi-transparent. Is she a spirit? Is she a legend so tied to a particular place that they’ve become one and the same? Is she the star of a film like that other, unlikely female gunslinger Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead? Is the girl in the painting caught in a dissolve between a close-up of her face and a wide, epic shot of the face of a landscape that we’ve defined through the lens of mythic understanding in our art and popular culture?
“Red Rider” is also a portrait in close-up and there is a Sergio Leone-esque quality to both of these large, looming faces framed by wide-open spaces. “Pony” could be a lost image from Once Upon a Time in the West, but the timeless atmosphere of the painting also recalls the opium dream that frames Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. “Red Rider” doesn’t remind me of Leone’s films as much as it calls to mind the cinema that Leone inspired. The face of the “Red Rider” is hidden behind a scarlet handkerchief that covers his nose and mouth beneath glowering eyes – pure outlaw chic. It reminds me of the “Southern” rebels in Sergio Corbucci’s Django who wear scarlet hoods over their heads in some odd blending of an outlaw’s red bandana and the garb of the Ku Klux Klan.
“The whole series is a narrative of this red bandit character – the Red Rider. That’s what I call him,” says Pierce. “He just escaped from the cave – that’s why he’s always sunburned.”
With “Collision,” the painter offers West’s biggest surprise. The paintng finds two bullets crashing nose-to-nose in a comic book-style pop art explosion. The projectiles crack in half in the midst of a multicolored blast that’s highlighted by gorgeous flashes of silver leaf – it’s unique in the series and it’s the closest Pierce has ever come to Lichtenstein.
“It’s really cartoony.,” says Pierce. “Every now and then I like to do something that’s a little more flip or uncertain – not so measured.”
Very “certain” and carefully “measured” is the sort of perspective one might bring to a gunfight, and that’s exactly what Pierce brings to “Showdown.”
“This is one of my more poetic pieces,” says Pierce. “The concept is solid – it says what it is.” The painting pictures a dappled desert stretching into the horizon. A gunfighter in the center of the painting is rendered to look like he’s made of pure blue sky – he’s transparent and a white blast of sunshine notes the firing of his revolver. The viewer sees the scene through the transparent body of his victim who is painted like a see-through scrim of starry night sky – he’s dropping his pistol and the moon above a peak on the horizon looks like a bullet hole in his chest.
Casting his gunslingers in a showdown of complimentary opposites, Pierce tells a story that stretches back past dusty tales of rustlers and regulators, sheriffs and shootists. The artist trades Duel in the Sun for a duel with the sun, recounting timeless conflicts like the one the ancient Egyptians personified in the feud between the sun god Horus and Set, the god of the desert. An extremely complicated myth, the story Horus and Set is ultimately a revenge tale – just like the kind you’d find in a brooding United Artists film from 1952. Pierce’s painting reminds us that at every point of conflict throughout human history the clock has always been striking high noon.
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