Artist Nick Thornburg doesn’t just want you to think critically about the story of the West. He wants you to think critically about your story of the West, yourself and America.
Can you be totally honest about how your story was formed? How would you change it and do you realize that you can?
Thornburg was captivated by the West and the history and paintings of Charlie Russell while visiting relatives in Montana as an Iowan youngster. He began drawing at a very young age with aspirations of cartooning ala Calvin and Hobbes. Years later, after acquiring Cinema and Comparative literature and Theatre degrees, working at broadcast stations and on movie sets in L.A., Thornburg landed squarely on oil painting. He still enjoys ink work and experiments in other mediums to keep his spirit of exploration alive.
Thornburg lives in Lander and is pursuing his art full-time while working one day a week at the local frame shop. He draws heavily on what he learned working in theatre, cinematography and costume design when creating artworks.
“You are designing something to get a particular emotional response,” he said in an interview with WyoFile. “Understanding influence and how design can play into the emotional story and impact.”
His upcoming show, “Virgin Land: Myths and Narratives”, brings this ethos to life with every element conspiring to convey his point. According to Lander Art Center Executive Director Stacy Stebner, the show is noticeably more designed than most and Thornburg’s personal investment in sequencing and dedication to hanging the show himself is unique to the venue as well. Show-goers wander from a group of loosely painted, yet highly detailed animals, past landscapes and abstracts, through a touch of classical realism to sparse modernism. Each piece belongs with the others while also standing alone.
“It’s so Wyoming and it’s so different,” said Stebner. “I love the cubical abstract stuff, the comic style I feel from others. It’s really eclectic but fits together and feels stylistically perfect.”
The show is one of only three solo shows hosted by the Lander Art Center in the last three years. Stebner says the larger space — the gallery has more square footage than most in the state according to Stebner — make it difficult for a single artist to fill.
“It’s an incredible amount of work for an artist to create enough to hang a solo show here.”
The show contains roughly 75 pieces ranging from 5 x 7 to 30 x 40 and there is space for more. “Nick is the first artist in residence to exit with a solo show,” Stebner added. She is thrilled that the residency provided the opportunity to develop a culminating show.
“Virgin Land,” is broken into four distinct parts accompanied by explanatory quotations inviting the viewer to explore the story of Westward expansion — and parenthetically, their personal story of growth and expansion.
First, “A Howling Wilderness,” examines a common 17th century narrative. The viewer is guided through a kind of dream-reality. The images are surreal, then real, then all at once untrue to what the viewer knows as reality. A subtle request to reflect on the fixations and mysteries in our own lives that shape-shift over time.
Part two, “Untransacted Destiny and the Garden of the World,” begs us to explore our romanticized notions and oversimplifications.
“When you think about resources or land in terms of resources and commerce, we reduce it to figures on a balance sheet or treasure to be achieved. We can lose a lot of information about what a thing actually is,” said Thornburg. His abstractions offer a limited almost unrecognizable picture of the natural world — a stark reduction to parts and pieces.
“Dime Novel Hero,” part three, is “primarily about violence and masculinity and the cult of the ‘American male,’” said Thornburg. He expects mixed reactions to this portion of the show, especially from men.
“You know with art you expect to have some sort of emotional connection, otherwise there is no real point. If people are pissed off that’s OK. But instead of being pissed off at me I would suggest they spend a little bit more time thinking about why. You know if they explore those feelings they might realize, maybe they feel a little vulnerable.”
Thornburg suggests confronting emotions that well up inside us when viewing art with questions and answering them honestly. Perhaps a case of simple, not easy.
Lastly we float through “A Fourth Song.” This section of the show is dedicated to hope for the future inspired by what Thornburg calls, “An actual American myth,” rather than a European myth about this land. Skulls and symbolic moonrises require the viewer to break down their definitions of silly myths and acceptable ones.
Notably missing in this emotional voyage through the mythology of how the West was won are images of Native Americans. There is only one. It is shadowy and poorly formed.
“It is an idealized version of an American Indian based on the narratives and myths that I, and most European Americans have been taught,” Thornburg said. “I thought this was the only possible representation I could put in the show if I am being honest about the story I know. The only thing I can honestly say is that ‘I don’t know shit.’”
He hopes his honesty inspires others.
The show, opens Friday Jan. 11 from 6-8 pm at the Lander Art Center. Stebner said she expects it to be a great opening, “a packed house and sales for the artist.”
She also notes that Jackson Hole Still Works will be present, “with a vodka bar. And I’m so pregnant, it sucks.”
Thornburg’s artwork will be featured on the distillery’s 2019 Highwater Vodka bottles as the winner of the company’s 2018/2019 “Spirit of Wyoming,” competition.
Excited about being featured on the bottle and nervous in the most positive sense to unveil this body of work to the public, Thornburg measures a good opening by the number of people talking. “I’m trying to do something more than make a buck. If that’s all I was doing, I wouldn’t hang a lot of these pieces. We can sit and think about things but if we don’t have the ability to bring the conversation to the wider world, what’s the point? This is my way of bringing the conversation to the wider world.“ He hopes you will attend and participate in the conversation.
If you can’t make it to the show, you can participate on Thornburg’s social media. Use #virginland to share thoughts on your own myths and narratives or those of the West with the artist. You can find him on Social media @nick.thornburg.art and www.nickthornburg.com