When asked about a title for this show, those two words just slipped out of my mouth. To be honest, if I had the opportunity I would choose something easier to explain, something like New Paintings or Recent Works, titles which are self explicatory. Too late, the cards have already gone to the printer and I’m stuck with this. It’s just possible that as we sat there drinking coffee and discussing the exhibition, my mind was wandering around the studio poking among the paintings, seeking possibilities for the show. In order to assume my part in the conversation when sensing that I had been asked the question, I blurted out those two words in answer. For some strange reason that I am unaware of, they just happened to be at the tip of my tongue. Was it an improvisation on my part? Maybe. Then again . . .
So what do improvisations have to do with history? I did a series of paintings over the past few years that I called “Improvisations,” and ironically none of them, as of this writing, are physically represented here. In the creation of those paintings I recognized a certain madness to my process, which was basically to accept whatever came my way and include it in the work at hand; to improvise from such diverse things as: the nature of Buddhist philosophy, Japanese chintz, and the hubcap that rolled up into my yard which no one claimed within the allotted two weeks and that ended up embedded in the surface of “Koan #9,” which unfortunately, is still unfinished in the studio.
I picked up the marble tiles for “Koan #2” from a salvage yard and liked them because they were quarried in Carrera, Italy where the marble for Michaelangelo’s “David” was quarried, or so the dealer claimed. Talk about history. Even if it’s not true, I find it compelling that I might have used material from the same place. And after all, it is Italian marble. It’s also compelling to note that the tiles themselves have a history, being taken from some other place and function and reborn, as it were, into this new life as a vital element of a painting. The other collage material and the rusted metal pieces are also recycled; and much of the canvas had a previous existence as a failed painting. And what is rust, but the history of oxidation? Even though none of the original “Improvisations” may be included in this show, I see that I have continued to practice improvisation, indeed, have always, historically speaking, improvised in the creation of my work. If the truth is to be told, I think my life has become an improvisation.
But what does this have to do with history? I was trained in improvsation in acting and directing classes as a theater major in college, I have been a licensed hairdresser for thirty-five years, and I have just finished my first novel. These are all parts of my history. My work tries to make some kind of sense out of such disparate facts. And, among other things, it is a record of my time spent in the studio. More or less, the paintings are artifacts, personal histories, if you will, of my studio life. At their best, they trace my quest for meaning like a journal recording the daily events and historical influences of my life. Some of these influences are recognizable, primarily because I have taken few pains to hide them. I think that serious work almost always rests on the shoulders of those who precede us.
If I had to say what is at the root of this, I would say that my work is probably a search for relationship, more than likely, an examination of juxtaposition, of how things relate to each other. Metaphorically speaking, improvisation is to history as a plow is to a field.May-be. But then again . . . .
-Don West 1999 Tucson AZ