Essay | Dr. Mark Thistlethwaite on Linda Blackburn's The Law of The Saddle

Dr. Mark Thistlethwaite, March 24, 2018

           Throughout her illustrious career, Linda Blackburn has engaged with diverse artistic media, including ceramics, sculpture, paintings, monotypes, and film and video. In her latest body of work—exhibited as The Law of the Saddle—Blackburn utilizes the well-known characteristics of Western movies to further her longstanding exploration into the nature of painting itself. While her images are fictive, they resonate with scenes from countless Westerns familiar to many people. However, by undermining the iconic elements of this genre in her compositions, Blackburn emphasizes the painterly qualities of her work.

           Standard tropes of Western films occur throughout Blackburn’s recent paintings—horses and their riders, a female homesteader seen from behind gazing into the distance, gun-toting cowboys, a buckboard, campfires, and chuck wagons. Also like the Western movie, Blackburn’s art embraces the land as its defining feature. The buttes, rocky outcrops, mountains, vast spaces, and arid starkness fundamental to the filmic landscape find their counterparts in Blackburn’s imagery. Even the titles of her works are tied to Western films—Hondo (1953), The Law and Jack Wade (1958), and Cimarron (1960)—while the exhibition’s name recalls the 1943 film The Law of the Saddle. Despite these conspicuous connections to Westerns, Blackburn’s art upends and recasts the traits of the genre.

           One way Blackburn accomplishes this is by rendering figures and geography in a sketchy and childlike manner. For example, take a close look at Storm Clouds, 2017. By almost entirely omitting cast shadows, Blackburn unhinges the figure-ground relationship so that forms hover in space. This literally, and metaphorically, deflates the gravitas associated with the high drama and grand landscape at the heart of so many Westerns. Blackburn further unsettles our expectations by muting the ominous background clouds and mountains, which in a film version of this scene would have signaled that danger was in the air.

           Another way that Blackburn destabilizes the Western is by subverting its narrative realism, which typically centers on a clash between good and evil. She achieves this by defamiliarizing what initially appears to be a commonplace storyline. We see this in Storm Clouds, where, in the middle of nowhere, a mounted cowboy points a gun at another cowboy. This is standard fare for Westerns, but Blackburn throws narrative realism into confusion. Why are the strong box and the woman in the buckboard out of scale? Why do neat rows of vegetation appear above and below the woman? Why are the figures delineated with nervous blue lines? What’s with that strange form (rock?) floating ominously over the rider’s head? Is the molten-looking butte threatening or just oddly situated? In Storm Clouds and other paintings, Blackburn consistently dissolves the conventional realism of the Western narrative by manipulating the scale and configuration of compositional elements and by juxtaposing incongruent objects and forms. In so doing, the artist acknowledges the Western film’s narrative qualities while aiming to create a painting that is not read, but experienced.

           Blackburn has watched Westerns since childhood—in movie theaters, on television, and via videos and streaming. When viewing one in her studio, she will take photographs of images on the screen. This can lead to small sketches, although she says these drawings never mean too much in terms of a painting’s final composition. A visual feature of the Western film that she finds particularly intriguing, and that she wishes to express in her art, is gesture. One manifestation of this trait is the vignette format she deploys in this new series of paintings. By not always painting the canvas edge to edge, Blackburn is able to emphasize her gestural brushstrokes. This interest in gesture may also account for her undulating blue outlines of the figures in Storm Clouds, as well as in the brushwork shaping the rocks and landscape. The odd, often clunky, geological formations in many of her paintings derive, perhaps, from those scenes in a Western movie where a matte painting of the landscape has been obviously employed on a stage set. When movie viewers become aware of a fake background, it momentarily breaks the narrative and reminds them of the artifice of film. Similarly, Blackburn’s sketchy, out-of-scale, and quirky landscapes interrupt viewers’ narrative readings to bring them back to the fundamental fact that what they are gazing at is a painting.

           For Blackburn, the Western’s heroic drama, good-versus-evil narrative, and assertive landscape are challenges to face in her work. These aspects of film can overwhelm a painting, thus distancing the viewer from the art. She wants the art to be dominant; “Painting wins,” she declares. She finds this happens when a painting possesses what she terms “classical balance.” By this the artist means that everything is where it needs to be compositionally—nothing can be changed—and “the whole can be seen at once.”

           Linda Blackburn’s paintings are eye-catching for many reasons: their striking use of colors, engrossing brushwork, fascinating spaces, interaction of abstraction and representation, and, sometimes, playful humor. Yet, for her, the images are not intended to be about Western films or the West, nor are they meant nostalgically or ironically. Ultimately, they are about the nature and reality of painting. As an artist, her goal is to bring the viewer continually back to painting itself. So, take another look.


Dr. Mark Thistlethwiate

Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History

TCU School of Art