If one were to break into my house, rifle through papers, photographs, unsent postcards and secret, half-assed sketchbooks, it would be possible to uncover my almost shameful crush on west Texas.
From the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on down to Big Bend National Park and including the made-over art town of Marfa and the junky, soulful Mexican border sprawl of Ojinaga, the whole region exudes frontier grandeur and entrepreneurial chutzpah. Between the alien wilderness carved from ancient sea beds, the loping, light-filled plains and the weird Americana of abandoned tourist schemes, rattlesnake museums and the preponderance of border checkpoints, it is prime road trip material.
In west Texas, I have rolled down the window, cranked up the stereo and risked Bell’s palsy by flapping my face in the air and enjoying triple-digit sightseeing of camels, monumental minimal art and the mysterious Marfa lights, all within a hundred-mile range.
When I was contacted about Reinhard Ziegler’s exhibition Along For the Ride…Images of Marfa and Big Bend, I was suspicious. Reinhard Ziegler? Sounds like a pseudonym thought up after too much schnapps. I’ve seen plenty of artists try to capture images of Big Bend and western Texas, mostly while idly leafing through volumes at the outstanding Marfa Book Company, but Ziegler was reportedly making road trip work—imagery framed by the window of the moving vehicle. I thought, “If this ‘Ziegler’ is real, he’s been raiding my sketchbooks and iPhoto folders but he actually has the talent and energy to do something with the material.”
Then I got my hands on an advance copy of the catalog. Ziegler was doing exactly what I imagined (except, possibly, breaking and entering) but, much to my dismay, he was taking photographs and then he was marking over the tops of the prints with pastel. Pastel! The art material that has become synonymous with a whole range of colors best known for knockoffs of name-brand preppy shirts and for the palette most identifiable as “stuff for babies.” The favorite for nasty old bastards who are always looking around for “models” so they can draw the same poses over and over again.
Worse, Ziegler was putting pastels on top of photographs. There are a handful of artists who have successfully mixed photography with other materials and created delicate, poignant work. There are a handful who have made bold, exuberant work. Mostly, though, people start painting or—ugh—pasteling atop photographs and all they achieve is to give art a bad name. A really bad name.
After all, if you must start scribbling with pastels on your photographs, it’s an indication that the photos are poor to begin with, isn’t it? And, if you must use photographs as a base for drawing with your—shiver—pastels, then it seems likely you’re not much of a draftsman and you’re pretty much cheating. To top it all off, one of the reasons the general public despises artists is for exactly this kind of trickery. What the hell is wrong with a photograph being a photograph and a—sigh—pastel being a pastel?
Still, the actual imagery in the catalog didn’t look that bad. I chalked it up to the miracle of modern, overseas printing technology and resigned myself to stop by the exhibition with the foreknowledge that shaky, bad photography would be embellished with little artsy flourishes of pastel. I hadn’t yet met Ziegler or seen his work in person, but I already hated him deeply.
It turns out there is a reason to go and see art exhibitions rather than to judge them on press releases or even catalogs. Ziegler’s work exudes the kind of quiet but domineering presence the passing landscape of west Texas does. There is no unskilled or even coy debate between the photography and the pastel. The artist begins with black-and-white images and lays down pastel with his hands, an earthy physicality that uses the most of the hues to recreate genuine colors of the natural world, and to achieve the contrast and highlighting that so frequently plays out at the edge of vision.
Motion is masterfully captured, whether photo-based or not, with the foreground a blur compared to the more timeless stature of whatever inhabits distance. Ziegler proves expert with both the quiet hill interrupting the far horizon and with the all-foreground complexity of passing buildings and strange landscaping.
His blurred, passing reference points bring out the truth of Big Bend’s quixotic landscape with a blunt aplomb that careful photographers and painters too often overwork or miss altogether.
Not knowing Ziegler’s other work, I feel he could be in danger of pushing a successful gimmick too far if he treats all his subjects with the same blurry enthusiasm. It is rare, after all, that dissimilar situations demand like treatment by an artist. But as it stands, Ziegler’s efforts are among the most successful I have seen in capturing an area that is as ripe with natural magnificence as it is with human poverty and everything in between.
I have decided not to press charges and to remind myself, once again, that you cannot judge an artist by his catalogue or even by his passion for—gross—pastels.
Along for the Ride
Through Jan. 10, 2009
725 Canyon Road