Image of an image
Has John Wayne become an icon? An icon appears out of some sense of need in human experience which leads one to imagine the unseen, to try to make it visible or to create a symbol for it, an image. Many paradoxes, inadequacies and frustrations of the human mind apparently lead it to look beyond itself for resolution. The effort to do so is often artistic activity -- a pulling together, seeing relationships, balancing.
The difficulty lies in confusing the image or symbol thus produced with what it stands for, and then attributing power to or worshiping it. Nowadays, with all our emphasis on "image," "how do I look?" "what face do I present?" we make icons of ouselves. What do we think we're doing? Whom do we think we're fooling? Are we being honest about facade?
The artist James Gill looks to me to be taking a good swipe at these questions with his billboard-size diptych of John Wayne, film cowboy. The close-up and long shot remind one of photographs, particularly publicity pictures. We have all seen enough of such images to make this sort of mental connection without even thinking about it. But the arrested action has an almost hieratic air, emphasized by the two versions as if seen through different lenses. There ae sublte changes.
Is the artist playing with the idea of "image": the painting of a photograph of an actor portraying a real or fictional person who represents an archetype? Gill has wrapped it all up in one icon-like package, layers within layers of meaning -- or question, if you like.
Well, what is the stuff of legend? What are heroes made of? Do they really exist or do we make them up? How close a look at them should we take? Lately we have seen enough myths in the making (and un-making) to have some feeling for how events are transmuted into sagas, how what goes on is interpreted by each onlooker in his own way according to what mental lens he uses. We search for a hearo to get us out of our troubles, often only to find we must rescue ourselves. But a bit of derring-do by someone in the public eye will surely lead to tales enhanced in the telling.
It does no harm for the hero to have a square jaw and steely eye. For him to ride a handsome horse puts him in the line of action dating right back to the time some tenacious soul first decided that sitting atop four legs was better than walking on two. The American cowboy fits the pattern nicely.
No matter that his life could be miserable in fact, and that too much loneliness warped him. He could come charging out of nowhere to threaten or rescue the status quo in the wild and woolly West just as well as he could in Central Asia, which is where I suspect his prototype came from. That part of the world has produced men on horseback sweeping across thousands of miles for thousands of years, long before the Spaniards brought the horse to North America.
I have never been to Central Asia, but I am slightly familiar with the Western United States, cowboys and all. The characterizations on screen are, shall we say, romanticized. It is no accident that cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies, with roles sometimes reversed for the sake of suspense and variety, have become the great American myth. They are convenient symbols for us. We are still trying to sort out the whys and wherefores of human behavior.
Sometimes such stories are woven into religious fabric or plastered into shrines. We now put them on film or television, the quicksilver icon media. What might have been horrendous experiences for the people actually involved in the original events are turned into morality plays for other people's instruction, conversion, entertainment, or -- dare I say it? -- bamboozlement. In any case, movie actos and producers know how to tap the fount of classic storytelling.
John Wayne carried the role of cowboy hero to final glory, becoming the "Duke" of filmdom, portraying heroes until he virtually became one to his audience. He and his audience all seemed to need the image he projected, and so this image has ended not only in cinema and television but in the art museum as well, that contemporary repository for icons of all sorts.
James Gill's icon does more than query the idea of image, however. There seems to be a certain irony in that anguished face and symbolic horse. In his arrangement of lights and darks, lines and shapes, I see not only drama but compassion for the man, the man caught up in the perilous confusion of self-image. It is a feeling that transcends iconography