Arts & Culture

West Texas is the star of solo shows at Fort Worth’s Artspace 111

Most people enjoy far West Texas from a distance of 32,000 feet. A cramped airplane seat on a flyover is preferable to a lengthy car ride, and pray to God we don’t have to stop and get out. West Texas is just scarily empty of anything delightful. Or so it seems.

There are artists though who find the minimal landscape west of 100 degrees longitude creatively stimulating. Two of them are having concurrent exhibitions at Artspace111. Photographer Jill Johnson has tender depictions of little events in small Texas towns in “West: Jill Johnson” and “New Works: Jim Malone” has his exuberantly colorful drawings of Big Bend.

Johnson, who was born in Lubbock because Muleshoe didn’t have a hospital, will go to great lengths to explain that West Texas is the area outlying Amarillo and Lubbock, any farther west is just, El Paso. When her parents separated, her mother decamped to Houston and took Jill with her. Summers though, Jill would spend with her father in Muleshoe, “like a hired hand,” she says, “putting up fence, moving pipe lines, painting barns,” and lying in the back of a wheat truck looking at the endless sky.

“I remember when I was young, riding next to Daddy on a tractor drinking Dr Pepper in glass bottle with peanuts in the bottom of it. We’d drive on that tractor for 10 hours straight, under that big West Texas sky, maybe not even talk for hours.

“You would see the same thing over and over again,” she says.

The tractor’s droning motor is the soundtrack to her youth, and the visuals are the minimalist oddities that are often the only landmarks of note in small towns. There is the Indian head painted on corrugated metal siding in Friona, or the geographic landmark “West” painted on the white stucco building, lest one forgets.

Johnson records the juxtaposition of the natural order and man-made oddities in her photographs. She takes these small moments and makes them redolent of time passing.

“These are a kind of relics that you can still see in the small towns,” she says. “Most people just drive by and don’t see them, but they are there.”

Johnson, who was a Star-Telegram photographer until 2008, has a tenderness for these scenes of fading Americana.

“A lot of these places are blowing off the earth. I want there to be a record of some sort,” she says.

Big Bend bound

Malone finds beauty in the very far west, miles past resume speed. He dares to go where few of us find the time to go.

He carves out the days it takes to visit Big Bend. He takes his camera and when he returns to his Haltom City-based studio he makes drawings from the photographs. Keeping up with Malone feels like one has tagged along on his many trips to Big Bend. For years he was faithful to his photographs, often drawing in ink or pencil for monochromatic renditions of the harsh landscape.

He never glossed the rugged landscape or made it seem less than horrifyingly hot and dangerous. So a “thank you” is in order.

In the past few years though, he’s been adding beautiful bits, enticing little come-ons that could almost make a viewer think they need to see Big Bend first hand. His rendition of blooming prickly pears, look like lace-draped corsages. So lovely, hardly lethal-looking at all.

He’s been adding color bursts: a cactus flower here, a little bird there. Then he included GPS coordinates to his locations; the text would circle round the perimeter of his drawings. After decades of engagement with the same landscape, he has now gone off the rails in a flurry of hyper-color.

He takes liberties with the chromatic assets at his disposal, using color pens and pencils depicting the familiar rock formations. After years of recording the barren landscape, giving every shred of vegetable fiber his full attention, straying into a color frenzy seems due.

He has also down-scaled from huge sheets of paper to a continuous roll that he draws much like a film strip, with panels that butt up against each other.

He has fashioned something that looks like a paper towel holder that he screws to the studio wall. It holds a roll of Japanese drawing paper. He pulls out about a 4-foot length, and as he completes a panel, he has an uptake reel on the right-hand side on which the paper is spooled.

Like music

“There is something about the roll that appealed,” Malone says. “I really started getting into a drawing that long.”

He admits he can’t remember the first drawings on the roll, but it works because he says he doesn’t want a narrative thread.

“I didn’t want to bring art-school notions of ‘this goes with this’ into it,” he says. “The order has to be very intuitive, because I can’t see the whole thing, only about 2 to 4 feet at a time. I’ve already forgotten the first image by the time I’m on the third or fourth one, or the way the first one relates.”

To find the next panel, he cycles through his library of slides from trips past until he sees an image that appeals and knows that is the next one he will work on.

“I enjoy that process, for whatever reason, you don’t have to sort through all the reasons. One pops up and that’s it. That’s the one.”

Still, once the long scrolls of drawings are unfurled to the full 20-foot length or more, there is a likeness of images and patterns that appears. The drawing’s whole is more like a musical score than a film strip. You can see repeating refrains. The image of Casa Grande, Big Bend’s signature monolith, appears frequently. It is easy to imagine it as a refrain.

“I worked in black and white for a long time, I got bored with it, which is why when I chopped of few feet off first roll to experiment with colored pens, it just opened a door,” he says.

He willingly stepped through and it turned the monstrous rocks bright yellow, or a vivid red. He inserts star fields into the scrolls and on top of his horizons, “Those create mystery and drama,” he says.

The transition to color also compelled him to stitch puff ball clouds onto the sky and emblazon the title “Rocks With Questions” across the center in gold type.”

Color has brought a new lightness to his pieces and bits of whimsy that could only be achieved by an artist who has so fully explored all the possibilities of the majestic landscapes.

Like Johnson’s choice of locations to photograph, there is an evident love of place in Malone’s work. The locations are resonant with connection. There is so much more than meets the eye, and Johnson and Malone have found ways to articulate that love in their work.

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