Local artist Jordan West reminded me of the John Donne poem containing “No man is an island” on my visit last week to West’s Second Street studio. We’d been talking about the difference between working in isolation and in a group.
The idea of an art collective or movement isn’t new, but the concept has shifted from a platform for particular
artists to break out with a complete expression of a group suggestion to an art form within itself. The trick has always been for artists to share technical know-how without creating too much of a by-committee process, ultimately leading to uninteresting or derivative outcomes.
West moved from New York City to Santa Fe in 2002, he says, to escape such derivatives, the work in NYC appearing to be a reaction to “current social thought.”
“There’s certain groups and cliques, and certain artists’ work that would extract the essence of that group and put it on display,” West says. “Then people could relate to that and say, ‘Well, this is a representation of this or that group,’ and then there’d be a dealer who could handle that clique. Perhaps the work is honest work, but for myself, I didn’t think that I was creating anything that was honest.”
In other words, West had learned what he could in New York, and he’d begun to feel that deeper discoveries awaited him if he followed his instincts. After all, his instincts had provided for him previously.
Born on a Wyoming ranch in 1969, West grew up without much television or other media influence. He played in the “flat grasslands and dramatic open landscapes” with his siblings and cousins. The home was full of oil paintings in which he says he would lose himself. “It was a rich area for the imagination to get sparked,” he says.
Still, the opulence of the ’80s corrupted him: “Reagan, Wall Street, Michael J Fox in Family Ties—I thought, ‘That’s what’s important,’” he says. He studied international finance for a semester or so, and having “failed miserably,” dropped out. That’s when he remembered getting lost in those paintings on the ranch, and more importantly, he desired access to his “inner register.”
I’ve been throwing around the term inner register after reading Jim Carroll’s The Petting Zoo. Carroll borrowed it from Henry Miller to describe the act of piercing reality with oblique observations, unveiling metaphysical or divine origins, at the least a precedence or permission for one’s self. That search drove West to New York.
After 12 years, he moved out of Gotham, and away from abstract work, to Santa Fe, and toward representational pieces he hoped would reach more people outside certain art scenes.
“I looked back at the art I was drawn to…and said that I need to be a chronicler,” West says. “I wanted to be able to present [these works] in the context of our current situation, how we live and where we live.”
After deciding old factories exhibit too much of a romantic and glamorized statement, he turned instead to active indicators of an American dream in flux, like airports, big-box stores and public bathrooms—spaces he believes will eventually fall to ruin like the factories before them. Indeed, the series of oil paintings and gouache-on-paper works collecting in his studio has a certain remembered feel, an anthropological stillness.
“How many people go through a Target store and don’t understand the effect that place is having on them?” he says. “There’s a certain amount of horror in these places.”
That horror might be the sense of loneliness inherent in consumerism (illustrated by utility-driven spaces) or, more frighteningly, in being human.
West works alone. He works often, he says, avoiding outside interferences, but the Donne poem has been haunting him. What does it mean to work alone? Is anyone really alone?
After our meeting, West emailed me the poem, and these lines jumped out: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Underneath, West wrote, “I wonder what John Donne would have thought of Facebook.”
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