Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, through August 28, 2015.
By Jacob Feige
In Jocko Weyland’s 2004 interview with ski-resort illustrator James Niehues, his questions are short and practical: “You use gouache?” “How do you keep distances relative and credible?” “You grew up in Western Colorado?” Only once does Weyland, an avid skier, artist, writer, and curator, expand on a question to reveal his own high regard for the artist: “There’s a huge amount of utility to what you do, which is highly unusual for a painter.” While Weyland may find beauty in Niehues’s paintings, which are dramatic and immersive, if conventionally realistic, his interest lies more in the paintings as maps—practical navigational tools. Weyland, whose main artistic output is photography, had done little if any painting at the time of this interview. For the work in his exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, he kept a gouache set while working as a lift operator in Incline Village, Nevada, painting directly over these fold-out maps given away at ski resorts. The resulting paintings stand in contrast to what he admires in Nieheus’s work: where Niehues clarifies and illustrates, Weyland playfully deletes and distorts. Where Niehues illustrates with precision, Weyland applies paint with ham-fisted urgency. Still, Weyland’s fondness for Niehues’s maps is clear in his own work.
Niehues, Weyland, and I all grew up in Colorado, though with decades between us. Being there every day, it’s difficult to escape the easy-yet-perilous sublime of the Rocky Mountains, where snow-covered peaks have managed to maintain their sense of pristine power no matter how many condominiums are built at their feet. A legend among Denver artists tells the story of a University of Denver painting professor gesturing out of west-facing studio windows, asking his students how they could possibly make a painting that would rival the beauty of a mountain range without being a crude imitation of it. This question of how to respond with a meaningful, authentic aesthetic to beautiful surroundings has plagued many artists with roots in such places. In Weyland’s ski map paintings, his response is to dispense with the sublime—and even poke fun at it— and to focus instead on his physical and mental relationships to the mountain as a skier.
I myself poured over ski maps as a teenager, each containing a sense of wide-ranging possibility for adventure and exploration. At about eleven years of age, I marked the location of a secret hut between runs with a dot, having only a vague idea of its primary use as a secluded spot to smoke pot. Choice runs were circled in ballpoint pen, others crossed off. If the map represents potential navigation, adventure, and movement within limits, Weyland paintings like Kirkwood (Green Top) and Squaw Valley (Orange Sky) suggest a series of trajectories and deletions, drawing attention to certain paths and patterns. There is a sense that the artist is thinking something over about the possibilities for the mountain, with paint applied as a kind of shorthand for actual skiing.
Conversely, Weyland’s gouaches fall as much within the canon of abstract painting as they do mapping and diagramming. Depth is flattened and color intensified with high-chroma, urgent strokes, suggesting an affinity to German expressionist landscapes by Emil Nolde or Ludwig Kirchner. Two or three pieces begin with the same map, and only color and texture differentiate these paintings from one another. Color palettes sit cannily on the threshold of a particular time of day, just a tad too acidic to neatly call to mind Monet’s poplars or cathedrals in varied light. In the three Squaw Valley pieces, colors range from sharp yellows and blues evoking sunrise to flat, graphic ski patrol colors: black, white, and red. The shifts in these pieces aren’t quite impressionistic, nor are they the cold, indexical color of Warhol’s serial electric chairs and shadows. A subtle success of this work is Weyland’s ability to flirt with atmospheric and graphic approaches to color, never quite committing to either one.
Weyland doesn’t usually make paintings, and according to the press release for the Fleisher/Ollman exhibition, he only started painting the year prior to making this work. His ungraceful and assertive approach with the medium is an essential aspect of the ski map paintings, deployed with the right balance of consideration and carelessness. Clunky squares and triangles blot out text in similar patterns from piece one to the next, yielding pleasantly awkward compositions, escaping the painter’s impulse to balance forms intuitively and conventionally. Lines weave down ski runs, casually darkening and fading. The application of the gouache in all works is slightly transparent, and the text and images underneath can be deciphered in places; if these are formalist exercises, the underlying map is never completely out of mind. Weyland frames this work as a stark departure from the function of the maps themselves—in his words, “‘redacted,’ altered, and mutilated”—but there is more of the experience of mapping and even of skiing in this work than he lets on. For all their humor, absurdity, and Dadaist disjunction, a sense of movement and physical joy remains equally salient in the paintings.
Unlike Niehues, who has lived nearly his entire life in Colorado, Weyland left as a teenager, and has since lived in a variety of rural and urban locales. His paintings, even if they are the product of an untrained hand, reflect a variety of experiences beyond the mountain slope, including cosmopolitan ones in museums and galleries. His tendency to use painting to repurpose and negate relates more to the culture surrounding skateboarding, another interest of Weyland’s, than it does to life in resort towns. For all their investment in the experience and imagery of skiing, these paintings ultimately connect urban cultural gestures, with nods to collage, abstract painting, and DIY skate culture.
Jacob Feige is Assistant Professor of Art at Richard Stockton University. His paintings will be exhibited in a solo exhibition at Rule Gallery, Denver and in The People’s Museum of Revisionist Natural Itstory, at Spaces, Cleveland, both in Fall 2015. The Phaidon Books anthology of abstract painting, Painting Abstraction, includes a section on his work.