Since the first hunter-gatherers made their way across the Bering Straight land bridge, humans have sought to make their mark on the American West.
From the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs of the Four Corners to the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe and the lightning rods of Walter De Maria, the Southwest is dotted with artistic attempts to make sense of that barren topography of desert rock and tumble weed.
"I'm interested in how the western landscape has changed and how art is playing a role in that," Henry explained. "For better or worse, artists have definitely been a part of that change."
Which brings us to Will Henry, whose landscapes paintings at the Hiram Butler Gallery continue to examine the myths and realities of the West as it exists in the contemporary imagination. In a recent interview with CultureMap, the Houston-based artist discussed Hollywood's love affair with the West and the art world's endless fascination with desert outposts like Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation.
"I'm interested in how the western landscape has changed and how art is playing a role in that," he explained. "For better or worse, artists have definitely been a part of that change."
In Giant — a long canvas named after the 1956 Liz Taylor-James Dean classic famously filmed in Marfa — a "Hollywood"-style sign perched on the horizon spells out J-U-D-D. Another piece titled Props, portrays the same Judd letters on a mountain top with Klieg lights shining in the distance and a stage set in the foreground.
"While, in a sense, these are all landscape paintings, the actual landscapes themselves are more like a backdrops for a narrative," Henry said, noting that the terrain itself has been painted from memory. The narratives range from personally-significant themes to broader commentary on the history of American art.
Growing up as a teenaged skateboarder in the small town of Thrall, Texas (pop. 712), the artist joked that he is quite adept at imagining himself in other places. His pieces at Hiram Butler show a West that exists entirely in the mind . . . albeit, one flooded with 20th-century cultural references.
With Painting for Budd Hopkins — dedicated to the Abstract Expressionist who became a pioneering alien-abduction expert — Henry fuses art history with Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, portraying the legendary Devil's Tower rock formation at dusk with a mysterious triangular spacecraft flying just above.
Will Henry: New Works runs through Saturday at the Hiram Butler Gallery. Click here for hours and details.