Word is that Jerry West, no spring chicken, was getting his boots dusty in the Utah desert and searing fresh memories into his eyes and hands just a week before his opening at Phil Space.

The senior of the sprawling West clan, he might be mistaken for a gentle old dude, slipping into quiet reflection on a full life lived in the heart of the American West. Of course, seeing as he was catching and handling rattle snakes in Utah, maybe he's not so gentle after all.

Nor is he slipping quietly into anything. West's mojo as a painter is sourced in apparent contradiction, the juxtaposition between age and presence, between cowboy kindliness and a world that is full of inexplicable grief and violence. His current exhibition, Dust and Stars: An Alchemy of Memory, is a remarkable pantheon of iconography from West's mind's eye and a Santa Fe history lesson—magical realism style—over the course of his lifetime.

Foremost among West's icons is himself: He makes frequent appearances in his work, sometimes as the central character whose dreams and recollections are haunted by black widows, camels laden with bones or ravens wheeling above; and other times as a player on the side, busy with his own concerns, while a mad world churns at the fringes. Scrawled in a sketchy, painterly, muralist sensibility, West's painted avatar lurks through key signifiers of Santa Fe, including internment camps and the Plaza obelisk. This is how he portrays violence: not on the level of individuals but through the experience of institutional disenfranchisement, the casual wreckage caused by bureaucratic decisions.

Frequently, West takes a bird's-eye perspective, looking down with a dizzying view, and again the viewer is hit with fundamental contradiction. The view should diminish the concerns of humans and decrease and encourage a sense of removal, but it's frequently in these paintings that the toll of cultural and social systems is most intimately borne by the characters that populate the paintings.

When West eschews his airborne perspective for a more head-on approach, he still invokes tremendous depth—distant rivers and receding, mechanical cranes—as a way of coaxing the viewer into his rambling, melancholy-tinged visual philosophy. It's a kind of beckoning that builds instant rapport. He is a painter who tells his secrets plain.

Intimacy is one of West's prime concerns, and the dialogue of the man with his own interior self, the protagonist with the fleetingness of spirituality or of people tentative in their relationships is a factor as sure as are colors and brushstrokes. Time, too, is a persistent character as well as a malleable one. West's "memories" are not confined to the past, but also include potential moments and fantastical futures.

Ultimately, West's paintings indicate the struggle to retain meaning through a sense of place, history and community. Some works can call to mind the sentiments of the American West's literary baron, Cormac McCarthy. But where McCarthy is closed and dark, West is open, physical and, if brooding, celebratory of the balance between life and death, between passion and madness, between painting and surrendering.

It's tempting to spout platitudes about how they just don't make fighting, loving, honest men like Jerry West anymore. But West himself would think you were pretty silly for saying so. What we don't make anymore is time to feel the ebb and flow of existence, to consider the great pleasures, the powerful mysteries and the inevitable defeats of life. We don't make room within ourselves to laugh at how petty our schedules and concerns are; instead we fill our days with death by 1,000 cuts. But West makes time. He remembers to touch the hot sand and to consider how it will feel in pigment and paint.

If he harasses a snake, he puts it down with care and respect and uses the memory as a gift, as a piece of truth in a world of distraction.

Dust and Stars: An Alchemy of Memory
Through June 20

Phil Space
1410 Second St.