As Americans become more mobile and more connected to the rest of the world’s population, the idea of a regional cultural identity becomes harder to identify. Suburbs blend seamlessly into cities and back into suburbs; restaurants and stores repeat as though viewed through a zoetrope. However, the American West remains distinct in its desolateness. Though our country has been settled from coast to coast, huge swaths of territory this side of the Mississippi remain uninhabited and undeveloped.
If you, like me, are not from the West, just the sheer distance between major cities is striking. Driving through the endless vistas of rural New Mexico and West Texas by day, I am amazed by the emptiness. By night, I am frightened by the absolute darkness. And it is on the vast voids of our country that artists Shelby Shadwell and David Jones have set their sights.
The two-person exhibition, True West, currently on view at 222 Shelby Street Gallery, is a surprisingly simple and succinct depiction of the contemporary Western landscape, specifically as seen from the freeway. Shadwell and Jones, both transplant teachers in Wyoming, seem equally struck by the isolation of the surroundings in their new home. Opposing and complementing each other, the artists use the semitruck as their subject in ways that are humorous as well as depressing.
Shadwell’s charcoal drawings of semis at night are immediately captivating. From a background comprised almost entirely of flat black, he subtly carves the forms from the negative space, focusing on headlights and the reflectors along the trucks’ perimeters. The drawings vary in size, but the best ones by far are the more monumental attempts that take up entire walls.
Shadwell has a flair for the dramatic, and his bold shapes and dynamic perspectives maximize the weight of the subject. His minimal mark-making does little to delineate the figure from the background and thereby heightens the sense of the endless massive shadows emerging from nowhere. By employing such a grand scale, Shadwell envelops the viewer and, in one example, places the viewer squarely in the path of the oncoming juggernaut like a sitting duck.
If Shadwell sees the landscape as inseparable from the 18-wheeler, Jones notices the parts that have been left for dead in its absence. Working in miniature, Jones constructs realistic 3-D vignettes of roadsides. The attention to detail is impressive, but it is the conceptual underpinnings that make the work poignant.
In one example, a damaged trailer sits abandoned in a snowy field. The scarred metal at the point of impact is beginning to rust. Housed beneath a Plexiglas dome, the work sardonically suggests a snow globe, the trailer a stand-in for Santa’s sleigh.
For the room-sized floor installation, Goldmine, Jones situates a boarded-up gas station next to the wooden frame of an unfinished house, both on a dirt parking lot. As the title suggests, the structures were built as the result and not the cause of an economic boom. When the bottom dropped out, the owners, like so many prospectors, had to move on.
Ironically, in the presence of Shadwell’s large drawings, Jones’ models successfully shift the emphasis from the semis to the land and the distances they traverse. Viewed from above, the subjects appear fragile and remote.
True West creates a coherent snapshot of the aesthetics and social implications of our long-haul shipping system and its infrastructure. The result is both beautiful and thought-provoking.
Through Oct. 19
222 Shelby Street Gallery
222 Shelby St.