We’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth. —Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), The Searchers (1956)
The Meaning of Life was easier to know before World War II. They were bad; we were good. Since 1945, it’s been harder to maintain the line in the sand between the good guys and the bad guys. And for those of us who grew up post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-AIDS, post-Iran-Kuwait-Iraq-Afghanistan, post-WMDs, post-Great Recession, that line has gotten redrawn so many times it’s a blur that has long since obscured the crisp black-hats and white-hats of earlier generations.
These black-hats and white-hats, and other western film conventions like their showdowns on silver-screen main streets, continue to delineate the parameters of what is right and what is wrong. They define gender roles and leadership expectations. They map the journey from child to man (even if it means the occasional woman has to wedge herself into the jeans cut for a male form).
I’ve already described my own fumbling for the meaning of life, suckled as I was on pop culture throwaway lines that I slowly came to understand were rooted in classic dialogue of westerns, film noir, and the like. And so imagine my fascination when Tumblr recently revealed another searcher, Tim Neath, artist and student, whose rough constructions seemed so akin to my own prose searchings. I immediately recognized a like-minded pilgrim, just in time for his degree show in conjunction with the Creative Spark 2012 exhibition at Sheffield Hallam University.
In Neath’s rough cardboard and
clay plaster models is the evocation of films such as John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, a western commonly described as the perfect mesh of classic and revisionist, with a masterful John Wayne being both the stalwart cowboy protagonist and the damaged anti-hero. These models were constructed with a cinematic eye (think John Ford’s framing) and a deft ability to pull from a densely packed scene a shorthand “code” that reads W-E-S-T-E-R-N and all that the genre entails. We see the abandoned cabin, the empty hitching post, the poignant color of sunset and, even if we have never seen the films before, we know the images are of loss, change, and defeat.
The constructions, more like sets, really, seem hastily done, but the point isn’t in the craft but instead in the uncanny accuracy of placement. Even if all you’ve seen is Bugs Bunny Rides Again, or Tarantino’s homages to westerns, recognition is instant, proving that the West is a big state of mind.
Neath creates these models and dioramas and photographic studies almost as records of his search for meaning through the lens of westerns, from Martha (2012) with its respectful tribute to the homestead that Ethan returns to after the war, like a moth to a flame; to the more experimental/experiential Life in an Abandoned Town (2012); to the looser, more thematic Did the Duke Take the Myth to the Grave (2012), which explores the emblematic actors and scenes from the genre apart from their narrative threads, and with its large format indicating the “construction” of myth, from booms to soundstages to low-tech effects.
Why westerns?” probably has come up a great deal for Tim Neath, so I asked about his inspirations and goals, and he was kind enough to share.
Bucko: Your work depends on the “visual codes” of westerns and, in fact, when I was viewing the piece inspired by Ethan’s return to the homestead after it’s been destroyed in The Searchers, I felt as if I was “peopling” it with my memories of the film. Yet I imagine that people who don’t know the film will still respond to your dioramas/stage sets by “filling in” what they recall from glimpses of westerns—whether classics or parodies. Why are the western genre’s visual codes so powerful? How can small details—the stance of a gunslinger, for example—continue to remain so fantastically iconic a century after the first westerns were filmed?
Tim Neath: I choose to use visual codes as that allows for images to be created but not to attached to a particular film. This can reduce the familiarity to just one film, when the imagery has been found in countless westerns. Our imaginations and memories, as you mentioned, are more powerful, so why not use them to complete the work? The piece is titled Martha (2012), from Ethan Edwards’ implied love, who is killed in the ranch, and the name he calls out [when he sees the ranch has been destroyed by Indians]. Yet at the same time viewers who are unfamiliar with the work will be able to consider a whole host of meanings.
The visual codes of the Western are so powerful, as they have been engrained into our popular culture; even here in the UK, the iconography is very distinctive. The longevity of the genre in its evolving forms relies on the same imagery that was used at the birth of film. Another point is that the myth that is created is the main resource to understanding frontier America. The power of these images created clichés that are recycled and reformed in other genres and aspects of popular culture; the gunslinger is a very strong image of masculinity, which has been appropriated by society.
B: The scale of your work is unsettling—the photos (from Martha) make the scale strangely/wonderfully ambiguous yet the objects/sets themselves are small in scale. How do you see the relationship of the viewer to your work—are we gods viewing the scene in much the same was as John Ford might, or do your viewers tend to come close to the sets, almost putting themselves into the action as if actors in the scene? (Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave, I’ve noticed, is quite different, however; its “vitrine” is big, although the scale of the scene it holds is small. Can you elaborate on that choice?)
TN: The choice in scale is one that goes back to my childhood, always making models at home. This naturally translated into my work. In one respect the models are sets, in both pieces that have been made this year. Martha (2012) was a constructed world that was filmed and photographed with that thinking in mind. I have always liked the idea of the viewer having a godly experience, looking over a miniature world, which produces a sense of power and wonder.
Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave (2012) has more of the film-set thinking and is not hidden from the viewer. The scenes are more contained, as they are when exposed on film; we are only shown what the camera decides to show us—our view is restricted. I am very aware that films are a construction and an illusion, which I choose not to shy away from.
B: And lastly, a basic question that is always illuminating, as many people really can’t abide the genre (at one point I didn’t, before a gradual transformation over many viewings of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cycle). How did you become interested in westerns as an inspiration? And you mention John Fords’ work in particular. Are there other westerns and/or directors that you return to again and again, and why?
TN: To be honest I find the Anthony Mann/James Stewart work very interesting, if you come from a film-noir thinking, the more psychological angle. I really need to revisit those films.
Returning to your question, however, my interest in the Western came through an exploration of classic films—finding the roots of popular culture references. This I knew from watching a Martin Scorsese video on YouTube, saying that he was heavily influenced by The Searchers, amongst other films, and also from George Lucas referencing the “return to the ranch scene” in Star Wars, Episode IV. I love finding the connections in the visual world. The draw of westerns and John Ford in particular is that human touch, the need to show the group as important. The earthiness of the characters in his films makes for very engaging movies. Westerns as a whole are films that transport you to a simpler world, with all the complications of the twenty-first century: it’s great escapism. The role of the man in the West has come to be a guide for me as a young male trying to find my place in the world influential. (Obviously taking out the gun part, which has evolved with society.)
The Creative Spark can be viewed through June 23rd, but Tim Neath’s work can be seen here on Tumblr, with his artist statement here. And hopefully, his work will soon be seen in many more venues to come.
(And for you western image stalkers out there, all images copyright 2012 by Tim Neath!!!!)