Jerry Bywaters: Lone Star Printmaker

The landscape shapes us, say these prints by the Texas regionalist, and we are it

Arts Review

'Jerry Bywaters: Lone Star Printmaker'

Blanton Museum of Art

Through Nov. 8

The mountains look like they erupted out of nowhere, so mammoth that they dwarf everything near them, diminishing the road running past them to a white ribbon, even crowding out the sky so that a passing thunderhead has to graze their rocky shoulder.

Anyone who has driven west across Texas and seen where the plains give way to the mountains should appreciate Jerry Bywaters' rendering of the same. The Texas regionalist, whose depictions of Southwestern culture and nature helped put our state on the artistic map in the 1930s and 1940s, captures that startling break in the landscape and the looming character of the mountains. His thick black shadows add an ominous weightiness, his great sweeping curves across their faces limn the impact of eons of erosion, and the wispy lines by one mountaintop elegantly convey a high-elevation storm as glimpsed from far below. Bywaters distills into graphic simplicity those elements that inspire awe when you're confronted with the Texas landscape in all its grandeur.

Arts Review

Landscape figures heavily in Bywaters' work as seen here, a collection of 39 prints made from the mid-Thirties through the late Forties. It's the focus in many pieces, as in the images of the Chisos Mountains, monumental and forbidding, often towering over a human habitation – a boxy white pueblo or a ranch house the size of a fingernail. Sometimes, as with his picture of a huge, prickly maguey or his portrait of a cowhand and his pony, the landscape is relegated to the background, and yet it remains a forceful presence, whether as a mountain, large despite its distance, or a long, low horizon, conveying the West's vast expanse. In Texas, Bywaters seems to say, the landscape is inescapable. It shapes us, and we are it.

Sometimes that idea is visible in his treatment of his human subjects. In his image of a Mexican mother, which owes much to the style of Diego Rivera at his most mythic, the kneeling figure fills the frame, as massive as a mountain, the cloth over her shoulders and around her head appearing as stiff as stone and the folds in the fabric like grooves worn in a mountainside. Similarly, in his portrait of an old clown, the numerous wrinkles creasing the circus performer's face look like lines cut by streams across a rock face; along with the heavy-lidded eyes, they speak of time wearing on us, leaving its mark. The poignance of the message, though, is leavened by the marks of his trade: a comical hat and dabs of dark greasepaint around his eyes and on the tip of his nose.

That's a touch that reveals a bit of the social satirist in Bywaters, the chronicler of the time with a keen eye for the details that show our human foibles and follies. It's also evident in Opera at Popular Prices, an image of a performance at Dallas' Majestic Theatre, where the artist's vantage point is in the back row of the balcony, so the stage is obscured by ceiling fans and lamps from above and audience members' heads from below. In Election Day in Balmorea, he crams so much detail into this view of cowboys clustered in front of a West Texas drugstore – a flyer for a rodeo, a barber pole, a half-dozen different styles of Stetsons and boots, signs for Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola, a standee for the movie Fools in Paradise, a vote total board on which Pappy Lee O'Daniel's name can be read – that he comes off as a Lone Star William Hogarth.

In this as in all the works in the exhibition (organized by the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University), you can sense Bywaters' affection for his home state, which goes a long way toward communicating the drive behind the Texas regionalism of his time and how the Dallas Nine and the Lone Star Printmakers – both groups to which he belonged – drew the attention that they did from inside and outside Texas. What with Flatbed's retrospective of Cynthia Brants, the "Texas Treasures" exhibit from the Center for the Advancement of Early Texas Art, and Kelly Fearing's inclusion in the Texas Biennial, 2009 has already been a great year for rediscovering the state's artistic heritage. "Jerry Bywaters: Lone Star Printmaker" adds to that, further enriching our appreciation for the artistic pioneers who shaped our images of the land that continues to shape us.

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Jerry Bywaters: Lone Star Printmaker, Blanton Museum of Art, regionalism, Dallas Nine, Cynthia Brants, Kelly Fearing, Center for the Advancement of Early Texas Art

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