For decades Sonny George's junkyard sat at the junction of Wyoming highways 14 and 16 poisoning the ground and water, growing tendrils of myth about buried treasure and cannibal dogs. It was the most powerful sight in Ucross, embedding itself in the memory of everyone who saw it. And for decades artists of all kinds came to Ucross to paint, draw, sculpt, print and photograph, but until John Hull, whose reputation as a major painter of our time continues to grow, apparently no one thought the junkyard a worthy subject.
Critics and art writers, mostly urban folk, grope for the right words to describe or discuss Hull's work. They try "landscape" and "narrative" and "realist," and their frustration with the difficulty of getting it right seeps into the paragraphs. But there is a kind of literature described as "country noir" by novelist Daniel Woodrell who coined the term to describe his own work.1 Rural noir or western small town vernacular is a little closer to fitting Hull's work than "landscape with figures." Hull's world is a place of mostly rural blue- collar lives: things go wrong; sex, drink and guns are omnipresent; trucks wreck; people fall down in the dirt; a woman sights in a rifle; there are confrontations and fights; men kill other men; suspicious people are arrested. In a 2001 retrospective interview Hull said "I'm always more interested in the people that misbehave. I can't get past what people do to each other."2 This interest in the darker side of western hinterland life has given Hull's work an unmistakably gritty character and individuality. Hull, who was a writer before he turned seriously to painting, has a powerful sense of story. He says "…no matter how many different series or narrative ideas I explore as a painter, I think I end up telling the same story." He quotes to that point from "Seneca in the Meat-House," an essay by Leslie Fiedler on Robert Penn Warren's poetry.
To one who has followed Warren from nightmare to nightmare, his new poem is a reminder that there is only a single bad dream from which he has always striven to awake to art, a suggestion that perhaps for all of us there is a single archetypal experience of terror, unsayable and, therefore, forever to be said.
Hull's connection to writing is solid. When he was working on "Family Reserve," the picture was not going well.
…I had this little study of goats that I did up at Sonny's that I'd always really liked but never had an idea for. Anyhow I had a fairly crude sketch of a man and his son hanging around a loading dock… I thought they'd be perfect leaning and sitting on the red truck. The first idea was just to have them looking at the goats but it looked stupid. So here I was stuck again. Before I got pissed off…I decided to take Raymond chandler's advice about fiction writing. He said whenever you have a problem in a story with character development or plot development have a man come into the room with a gun?and if it's a big problem make it a big gun.
Nevertheless, there is often a kind of tenderness in Hull's tough subject matter?the father's affectionate pride in his son's shooting ability, the cop holding up a cloth which will serve as shroud, the young lovers in the tryst wrecks. Many of his paintings are twilight and night-sky scenes, the starless wolf's mouth of night splintered by headlights, window or moon glare, the crepuscular evening hour dimming sight and welcoming those who would harm.
There is plenty of social and political content as well in these paintings. His treatment of landscape littered with old pipe, abandoned trucks and tires is what photographers, dodging the glazed beauty of Ansel Adams' work, were calling "the new topography" a few years ago, but Hull is not as judgmental, not as propagandistic. The stuff is there because it's there—landscape as fact. Hull's paintings evoke visceral and psychological responses, most often recognition of the familiar. All Wyoming people know this west.
In "Pictures from Sonny's" we see landscape as property, property as detritus. The wrecks in Sonny's/Hull's junkyard function as rooms, retreats, assembly halls, motels and extensions of the characters' selves, and of what we have done with the internal combustion engine. There is also an element of the fantastic and outré, as a monkey perched on a tire, a boy eating potato chips for a good junkyard breakfast, a postcard reproducing the Avignon Pietà, Hull's knapsack and a discarded study for "A Picture from Life's Other Side."
There are different ways to look at "Pictures from Sonny's." The most basic take is a perception of local history (which misses the point of how painters and writers work). In Ucross, a starkly beautiful high-plains landscape with the snow-capped Big Horns for a backdrop, the real-life Sonny George's junkyard disturbed some neighbors' ideas of correct landscape beauty. To them it was horrible and intrusive. Moreover, the place, located on the banks of Clear Creek, was a biohazard. Even more telling, many of those who objected to the junkyard were from outside the state, whereas Sonny George was an aggressive and stubborn local with many community relations and friends. Lines were drawn, each side gathering its powers of aggression and resistance which only Sonny George's death dissolved.
Local people who remember the junkyard may interpret "The Emperor of Wyoming" as Sonny George in triumphant ownership surrounded by wrecks, relations, goats and dogs. We get a feeling of the beleaguered junkyard owner's intransigent rancor, his stubborn digging-in and refusal to change his ways, his lack of understanding of what others recognized as scenic beauty. We sense the entrenched family's stand- fast attitude, their tight clannishness and insistence on living their lives as they had when no one cared about their junkyard. We recognize in our guts the dark fire of mutual resentment between newcomers and locals, between haves and have-nots.
But this is not likely what the painter had in mind as he worked. Sonny George's junkyard became John Hull's junkyard, a powerful setting he peopled with imagined figures and situations in order to examine something of rural lives in our time, lives which could illustrate people in the Appalachians, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, interior Nova Scotia, New Mexico or the Oklahoma panhandle as well as those in Ucross, Wyoming. Indeed, two of the paintings are drawn from New Mexico and Colorado settings.
Hull comments that he has used a cast of characters in the "Pictures From Sonny's" series: "…an older man, balding with a pale blue shirt; a young man with curly hair and an orange t-shirt, a boy who is shirtless. I consider these guys as three generations in a family. There is also a woman who wears a fatigue shirt with black shorts who is the young man's girl friend as well as a number of minor characters."3
The junkyard is also the ubiquitous Junkyard of America and generic representations of people who own and work in them. The people are not the George family of Wyoming, but a rural family who came out of John Hull's imaginative thoughts and observations of life around him.4
…I ended up using the junkyard as a setting to create a series of paintings about a family. The older man is based on my mother's father and the younger man on my mother's brother. The young boy is based on my son Isaac…. The young woman is based on my former wife. There are a couple of minor characters who only appear in a couple of paintings?a young man in a wife-beater shirt who I served with in the Marines and a young boy with a strip t-shirt and baseball cap who lived next door to me when I was a kid. Much of Hull's work is done in series, as "Pictures From Sonny's"; while each painting has its own strength, it is also relevant to the others. Years ago Hull saw Australian painter Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly series of paintings, and was struck by the strong effect a number of related works seen together had on the viewer. The series was larger than the sum of its parts. This way of working, showing events connected by a particular time and place, gives a richness of depth and meaning to the ensemble. By looking at the whole series and the studies we learn something not only of the way in which the painter worked, but of class differences, of tensions between civil authority and citizens. Sonny's/Hull's junkyard is a place where, by extension, the threadbare idea of individual freedom so important in our myth of the American west butts up against complex laws and regulations. Many of Hull's paintings involve guns, many illustrate the exercise of police power. And we can also sense here a class tension between sober, well-behaved, right-thinking citizens and those who do not fit society's ideal pattern.
As for "narrative," in the sense that each one of Hull's paintings tells or provokes a story, that is true in a low-level way, as British savant Eric Korn parodies the way soap operas are summarized in reviews?"Bracken meets Viaduct at Sledge's pachinko parlour," and "Viv accuses Bracken of simony."5 Hull's paintings, taken one at a time, are a little like sections cut from a movie ?the viewer must imagine the missing action leading up to, or following, the subject depicted. They are like a collection of poems where each poem can stand alone but is also related to the others enclosed within the same covers. Something of the same relationship that exists between a reader and a novel is here. A novel is not finished when it is published, but only when it is read, each reader coloring dialogue and scenes with his or her own life experience, sensitivities, observations of human behavior. In this sense each of Hull's paintings taken singly can have as many interpretations as it has viewers.
Footnotes Daniel Woodrell, Give Us a Kiss, The Death of Sweet Mister, Tomato Red et al., Putnam, New York. "Imitation of Life" catalog, Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher college, Baltimore Maryland, and the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Private correspondence. Ibid. Eric Korn, Remainders, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1989, 134.