Everyone needs a way to reach inner peace, to find a way to escape the stress of everyday life. Most people are searching for a shortcut to happiness their entire lives.
Don West had his personal state of nirvana down to one authentic stroke: the mysterious floating circle that has become his signature mark. Making this stroke, West immediately enters that state of consciousness that is the lifeblood of creativity. But now, in his 61st year -- despite working a lifetime to achieve it -- the ease of his work is troubling him. Complacency can’t satisfy one of the reasons he paints – “to achieve the feeling of being alive.” And so, his art is in transition again: he’s experimenting with media and form, and delving even more seriously into deep color.
And all of that makes for exciting work.
Not surprisingly, given his extensive background in theater, West’s paintings have always had strong formal elements. Some of his earlier works, referred to as “paintboxes,” are solid colors divided into formal sections, as if the background frame for an event in three dimensions. A good example of this is Paintbox 108 where cool yellows and greens dance across a plain divided starkly by a strip of knotted wood. Later, a number of his most complex non-objective paintings had attachments of rectangles of color as part of the structure of the work. Even today he is still powerfully attracted to adding structures to the edges of his works, as if endlessly working out the perfect stage set.
Earlier works, known as “improvisations,” incorporated reclaimed materials from actual stage sets as well as scrap heaps. These included leftover wood and cloth, steel grates, and random bits of metal. Thick layers of paint – often of mixed media – created textured surfaces. One of the earliest examples of this is After Picasso, where a piece of chair caning sits over a forceful abstract image of dark blues and lime greens. These were assemblages, constructed in sections and pieced together, reflecting West’s interest in Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Johns. A work such as Coyote Sings the Deconstruction-Reconstruction Blues uses horizontal stripes, an old tire, and stencil lettering to create a Rauschenberg reference, but retains West’s unique perspective. Last Chance to Dance Trance is a mixed wood, drafting vinyl, construction material, shingle, and tile assemblage of horizontal and vertical lines and squares that feels architectural – like a model or floor plan of a building. Colorful mixed-media oil and wax encaustic application, strategically placed, denotes his interest in the surface. The grittiness of the materials reflected not only the “nothing is wasted” mantra of an under-funded theater world, but also a kinship with some of West’s favorite schools of American art, including Abstract Expressionism and the Ashcan School of early 20th century New York. He still works and recycles found materials. Even his own paintings that don’t make it are recycled into new works.
Yet over time West’s work moved from this more prescribed style to a freer form of painting where the main focus is color. West’s most important influences, Matisse, Gauguin, and Cezanne, understood color as both a goal and a tool. For Matisse, color was joy and form. For Gauguin color was symbolic. For Cezanne, color was also depth and structure. Reaching a state of true facility with color – becoming a colorist as well as a structuralist – has represented the difference between learning and mastery. As he says, at age 50 it dawned on him one day as he worked that he’d accomplished a goal he’d set out to accomplish twenty years before, “to paint without having to think about it. To reach for the right tool and the right color instinctively, achieving a certain mastery in the work.”
Mastery also meant a freedom from certain elements such as line or realism as well. The stroke that epitomizes this state of accomplishment – the floating circular shape that informs so much of his work – first entered his paintings in the late 1980s. This stroke is remarkably versatile: floating calmly in works such as Circe, energetically vibrating in Lucia in the Sky with Diamonds, or even angrily interacting with, interlacing and transcribing both space and surface simultaneously as in Chaos. It is non-realistic, non-objective and non-abstract. The shape conjures up everything from balloons to dancing water forms to crowds of people – all of which are purely in the eye of the viewer. The paintings can seem elegant, or frenetic, or weirdly sexual; or sometimes just patterned, as in textiles. The works demand the active engagement of the viewer. The color and space are never entirely on the surface; there are great depths that pull the viewer closer and threaten to envelop. In some ways, however, it is his insistence on this very thing, this shape being placed as a paint mark, drips and all, on the canvas that calls attention most stridently to the surface, the panel or canvas, as a two dimensional entity, and to the fact that in the end painting is all about the illusion and artifice of picture making, both realistic and non-objective alike.
The works sometimes feel as if they are haphazard, as if the artist works in a free-form and completely organic way. But in reality, West says, these paintings are also purposeful: “They’re three and four steps removed from action painting.” They are quite deliberate and even the most random “drip” may have been worked over. There may be many or few accidents; but those that occurred to the artist’s liking became incorporated into well-thought-out compositions. And so, despite the urge to place West into the canon of Abstract Expressionism, Action painting, or Color Field painting, this work is almost diametrically opposed to those schools, in practice.
Since the bulk of West’s oeuvre is composed of these paintings with his signature, circular stroke, it is important to spend some time exploring them. The variety in these works is fascinating. Some are soft and lyrical, with pastel colors melting like chalk in the rain. Some, like Circe and Styx are so luminous and smooth-textured that you believe they are silk, not paintings at all. There are a few black and white works where gesture is center stage. These use negative and positive space to create thrusting movements, almost like bubbles rising from underwater pressure – mildly sexual and also photographic.
Perhaps the most notorious of the “signature” works is the more recent Lucia in the Sky with Diamonds. It started life as a stage prop (painted by another artist) for an Arizona Opera production of Lucia de Lammamore in the 1970s. West liked the work, “for some strange reason,” and put it in his storage shed for about 10 years. In December of 1989 he unrolled it to use as a drop cloth on the floor of his downtown studio. For four and a half years West allowed paint to fall on it at random, and in 1993 he noticed that it had a fabulous surface, complete with ghost images he could see in the paint. The artist cleaned the canvas, cropped and stretched it to its current state, and re-worked it. He considers it a record of his work and growth during a critical time in his artistic development.
Today, West’s work is coming full circle, and at the same time is completely new. He is re-exploring the “paintbox” concept of blocks of texture and color, but also merging in his floating circle when he desires. A brilliant example of this is Rim, where a sheet of swirling signature strokes is surrounded by hard edged wood and raw colored squares.
He is also back to experimenting with media, creating complex and beautiful patterns of color using a process distinctly without brush or mark. One of the most striking of these is Araby, where raw canvas was manipulated directly by hand during the application of the paint, creating an organic image that the mind’s eye can’t help forming into the familiar; in this case, the work evokes falling into a pile of leaves.
The naturally-rusted steel grates that he used years ago as assemblage parts, are re-appearing alongside blocks of pure, smooth minimalist color, as well as these new cloth creations, as in Atlantis and Persia. The mixing of surfaces, textures and mediums creates a sense of movement and urgency in all of this work, reflecting the fact that it is, as always, improvisational. The restlessness that West feels in his seventh decade is expressing itself in an explosion of new ideas and desires. He is also working again in landscape, using a strange and compelling conjoining of canvas on panel with papier-mâché, steel and oil overall. He says the work is not so much about landscape as they are about materials, fun, and getting up on the surface with paint and texture, letting the viewer’s mind create what it will with the intentionally ambiguous results, which are beautiful.
Yet, West doesn’t worry about whether his paintings will be liked or accepted. He paints for himself, in order to feel rather than express something, and to explore that inner space and consciousness that is at the root of all life. He is interested in creating a thing that “approaches some kind of truth or beauty” not defined by anyone other than himself.
- Lauren Rabb Sept 2007 Tucson AZ
Lauren Rabb is the owner / director of The Gallery at 6th and 6th in Tucson, AZ. She has an MFA in American Art and Culture from George Washington University and has published articles in American Art Review and the Encyclopedia of Antiques, and written numerous catalogues for gallery exhibitions.