After spending some time on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole Wyoming during the winter, when masses of elk descend from the snowed-in mountains to congregate in the Teton Valley, I was inspired to paint “The Bachelor Herd.” This piece is a smaller study for that painting. My goal was to capture the feeling of what I witnessed (in this case a typically segregated congregation of males), but to systematize it into a composition that explores my love of pattern, something that many thousands of elk, darkly silhouetted against the gleaming white snow, certainly suggest.
I have long been fascinated with pattern and repetition, both as it occurs naturally and in the context of the man-made. Just as all abstraction ultimately sinks its roots in a representation of nature, however distant and however dramatically stylized, so too do most man-made patterns take their original inspiration from the natural world. The familiar fleur-de-lis is actually a dramatically stylized lily or lotus flower, and even the most visually abstract fractal pattern is only a mathematical representation of the coils of a sea shell or the overlapping scales of a pine cone.
I pursued a series of paintings a few years ago called “Modern Camouflage” which featured very realistically painted owls emerging from highly stylized, heavily patterned, wallpaper-like backgrounds. These pieces were meant to comment not only on the displacement of wildlife from natural to un-natural habitats, but more pointedly on the conflict between illusionistic and flat art in the latter half of the nineteenth century until the advent of post-modernism (and perhaps continuing through present day). The juxtaposition of realistic and decorative techniques and the stark contrast between organic and inorganic patterns, with only the subtlest transition between the two, created a wonderful tension.
Gradually, this series lead me in a more whimsical direction, one that nods quite significantly to the American Pop Art movement. Arising out of the post-war prosperity of the 1950’s that made manufactured goods, once a luxury, mundane and commonplace, pop art was steeped in the everyday. From Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Wayne Thiebaud’s colorful deserts, these artists made us look humorously at our own excesses, and how much of the world around us we take for granted. Among my many obsessions as a painter has always been encouraging the viewer to really observe those things most people overlook, especially those animals which are so common as to become background noise. By taking an animal and reducing it to a silhouetted, stamp-like form, and repeating that shape to create a background pattern, the animal subject is pitted against a mass-produced image of itself. In some cases, the effect is humorous, evoking the animal’s ubiquity, life cycle, or reproductive capacity. In all cases, this systematization of a natural shape highlights the significance of the animal in human life and culture.
Elk have a very long history that is intricately woven into our own. Native Americans of course relied on them as a resource, as did white settlers to the isolated Teton Valley. Early homesteads and the subsequent agriculture there took a serious toll on the elk population, and it was only due to the work of early conservationists that even a small portion of the original elk migration habitat was set aside for them. Even today, there are continued (and controversial) efforts that try to balance making room for the elk and leaving them to their own devices with managing the population to ensure its health and survival. In my painting, it is no accident that some of the elk appear “realistically” in their natural colors and textures, while others are flat, one dimensional, and non-objectively colored. Housing the elk in the modernist context of this painting serves to highlight the dichotomy of our interaction with these charismatic emblems of the west.