The hill country of central Texas, that rugged, rocky, lonely locale of caliche soil and hardscrabble cedar interspaced with creeks and rivers-is as much a state of mind as it is to a real place to citizens of the Lone Star state. As Houstonian Peggy Shehan writes in the New York Times, “Its inhabitants relish its solitude and silence, finding the area to be not only enchanting but spiritually nourishing. Immortalized by Willie Nelson and the Austin singer-songwriter outlaws, lambasted by the prose of Kinky Friedman, this is also where Lyndon Baines Johnson was born, grew up and is buried. With the work of James Dusty Pendleton, the hill country has its true poet laureate, albeit in the form of landscape painting. These works draw to mind a remark by Alan Watts once made about the doctrine of WU-WEI (translated as the effortless effort of no-action) in Taoist and Chinese painting.”
The artist gives up any hope of ‘capturing’ the landscape, choosing instead to just sit there, sometimes for days, until emptied of ego, the landscape paints itself through him. There is something very akin to letting nature speak through the painter in Pendleton’s studies of hills and rivers, of skies and houses, of the juxtaposition-sometimes poignant, sometimes comical- of the everlasting land and the (less everlasting) human figures that populate his scenes. In fact, looking at the landscape more closely at the relationship between nature and civilization in his work, it seems no accident that he began painting the hill country full tilt upon his return from his extended years of travel in England, Wales, France, Spain, Mexico and throughout the United States. As he remarked to me, “I returned to discover the landscape I had grown up in was changing, the horizon’s panoramas replaced by fences and housing developments. Landmarks which 100 years ago guided the travelers, no longer mattered because highways and automobiles have made them obsolete.”
There is certainly a sense of history being captured in these landscapes but it strikes me as more metaphoric than programmatic. Unlike some painters, Pendleton does not sentimentalize the contemporary impulse to divide and conquer the land. Rather, he uses the hill country’s wild and raw elements to interrogate a clichéd vocabulary of the past. There are no cowboys on horseback or Native Americans staring at vistas; no quaint fields of bluebonnets or maidens in chiffon dresses. Instead he invites the viewers in media res, into a narrative that remains indeterminate, requiring extended contemplation to complete. Herein is the power of his painting: it evokes the sense of mystery which is inextricable from beauty itself and reminds us that those seeking to conquer nature are doomed to be conquered by the impulse while those seeking harmony with the ineffable find it in the smallest details of his landscapes.