ASPEN — A conversation with Woodrow Blagg hits on numerous touchstones of art, architecture, cinema, and loads of literature, as he references Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton and James Agee.
“I read a lot,” Blagg said, and it's clear that his survey of books runs deep. He brings up the Argentinean writer Macedonia Fernández, and confidently places him in historical context: “He was truly the father of 20th century Spanish literature. He was that powerful. Borges followed what he did,” Blagg said.
Blagg's interests have in common a heavyweight quality. You don't imagine page-turning thrillers on his bookstand, or romantic comedies on his Netflix list. In fact, you don't associate him with a Netflix list.
So it can seem incongruous that Blagg, an artist, is showing images of the American Southwest in an Aspen exhibition that opens Friday. And his work, opening at Valley Fine Art, with a 5 p.m. reception, doesn't give any immediately apparent intellectual reflections on the genre; the images are the age-old icons of the Southwest — horses and cowboys — found in one gallery after the next along Santa Fe's Canyon Road. It is a corner of the art world that Blagg isn't necessarily enthused to be a part of. “It's curious I've done this body of work,” Blagg said, noting that he wouldn't consider himself a devoted fan of Western art.
What sets the work apart — and what gives an indication of the distinctive character of the artist — is the method Blagg uses in his Western images. The current exhibition, titled Anthem, features works made of graphite and paper. The works are on a large scale — several feet in each dimension — and, considering that he is working in pencil, the detail of shading, contours and perspectives is extraordinary. The effort itself reflects the depth of the artist.
“It's grueling ... in a very interesting sort of fashion,” Blagg said. “You say, ‘Who does that?' Then, ‘Why not? Why not take it to a place that hasn't been done?'”
Blagg has lived in northeastern Pennsylvania for the last 15 years, and the Western-oriented work is hardly the extent of his output. But his Southwestern images come from a sense of place that is close to his being. Blagg, the oldest of 10 kids in his family, grew up in rural areas of Texas and Oklahoma. His father was in the army for 10 years before going to work on oil wells. Among Blagg's pleasures as a child were Western films, and the visual element was a strong influence
“‘High Noon,' ‘Red River' with John Wayne. These epic black-and-white Westerns were beautiful to watch, visually,” said Blagg, who has a twin brother who is a Baptist preacher, and a set of twin brothers who are both artists in Fort Worth. “And some of the imagery stays with me. ‘Hud,' with Paul Newman — the cinematographer [James Wong Howe, who earned an Oscar for the film], I think that was his high point. He did something in that film that makes it an American classic.”
The Anthem images, though, come more directly from his adult life. While living in Fort Worth, through most of the '80s, Blagg made numerous trips to Texas ranches. His habit was not to look quickly and find some eye-catching vistas to turn into appealing drawings and paintings, but to spend long stretches of time absorbing the ranching life. What he saw was hard physical labor in rough conditions, but also a satisfaction in the relationship that was built with the environment. Call it grueling, in an interesting fashion.
“The most impressive part of being in Texas was the connection for these ranchers. They'd been around 100, 150 years, and there was a monastic, enduring kind of appeal,” Blagg said. “It was kind of harsh at times. There's a ranch, the Quién Sabe, in the northwestern panhandle. There are no trees, it's flat, relatively high elevation so these huge winds. Bone-chilling cold. But there was something so grandly austere in the severity of sky and land. Very haunting. Learning, spending time there on horseback with the cowboys who have spent their lives there — that's a connecting experience.
“You go to those ranches, a massive area and space compared to an urban environment — and I'm there for a long time. It's very difficult to come back to Fort Worth after that. If I had stayed out another week longer I never would have come back to the city.”
Blagg has become disconnected from the ranches; he hasn't made a trip there in seven or eight years (though he is hoping to return within the year). Despite the physical distance, there remains a tangible closeness to the austerity of that existence. The 63-year-old Blagg lives in Eckley, a tiny place surrounded by other tiny places — McAdoo, Jim Thorpe, Frackville, Hazleton. Wilkes-Barre is 20 miles away. But it's more accurate to say that Blagg lives Eckley's Miner's Village, a mountain village owned entirely by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Blagg, who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, says his adopted home is “almost a ghost town,” with a population of seven.
“I feel like I'm living in a Knut Hamsun novel,” Blagg said, referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Norwegian who lived from the mid-19th century till the mid-20th century. “It's so out there, I've learned how to do so many things. I've become a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician. I've learned how to build my own computer. It's just part of the survival.”
Blagg's choice of materials may be a reflection of the facts of that existence. He has worked with oils and canvas — “I don't like to close the door on too much,” he said — but his preferred surface is paper, the thinner the better.
“These drawings, they're done on the thinnest paper made,” he said. “That was a deliberate attempt — I wanted them to have a hyper-real quality. But the image is tenuous. It's the transient nature of life itself. It's there but a few seconds.”
Describing the purpose of his work, Blagg brings up Whitman and Kerouac, Samuel Clemens and Winslow Homer — artists whose “obsessive interest come to an aesthetic coalition, if you will,” he said. He also brings up the more obscure Gordon Matta-Clark, who would take a saw to abandoned buildings to create light and shadow effects. “It was kind of an unprecedented performance, an architectural performance,” Blagg said. “His work to me was a tour de force, a remarkable original vision.”
“Basically what they were doing was something that meant something to them,” Blagg continued. “They were paying attention to their own vision. As opposed to doing work that was reminiscent of something that had already been done. When you do something for yourself, you can feel it inside. I feel like I'm walking with the angels. Not that I know that I am, but I can delude myself into feeling that way.”