Two shows opened at Blue Rain Gallery last weekend, featuring new works from Billy Scheck and Dennis Ziemienski
The stories of the Southwest are full of adventure, rugged and beautiful desert terrain, and a sense of wildness that has captivated people for centuries. California-born painter Dennis Ziemienski is one such artist weaving these narratives to life on canvas. He began his career as an illustrator after receiving a degree in fine art from the California College of Arts & Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in San Francisco.
“Someone told me early on that if you want to do fine art, you want to do illustration,” says Ziemienski, who has illustrated book covers and posters including the NFL Super Bowl XXIX and the 2006 Kentucky Derby. As digital illustration became mainstream in the 1990s, Ziemienski decided to shift his focus to a fine art career. He began submitting artwork to galleries and soon his paintings were being exhibited in their showrooms and in major museum shows. Today, his art is in private and public collections worldwide.
Growing up, Ziemienski was interested in the history of California and the West, which has impacted his artistic style and subject matter. However, the artist is quick to say that he doesn’t depict historical events but rather draws ideas from landmarks and places.
One of his most sought-after series focuses on the Southwest and features imagery of Route 66, the iconic
mesas of Monument Valley, Arizona, and the adobe architecture of the New Mexican Pueblos. He also depicts Native Americans on horseback or in moments of their everyday life to add a connecting human experience into his artwork.
Ziemienski holds true to his illustration roots like many of the artists before him who have served as inspiration such as Maynard Dixon, N.C. Wyeth and even Golden Age favorite J.C. Leyendecker. Narrative and design anchor each painting, allowing the artist to draw attention to a central figure or object and create a sense of dimensionality.
“Usually there’s a worm’s-eye view in my paintings where the vantage point is from down on the ground and looking up at the figure or object,” explains the artist. “It makes the scene grander, and there’s something about it that allows that figure or object to sit more nobly in my opinion.”
Another way that Ziemienski adds dimension to his paintings is by including a border at the edge of the image. The objects float inside and outside of the surrounding to give a sense of life and perspective. He also paints travel poster-style pieces that are perhaps the truest to his past career since they look like advertisements from a bygone era with their text and stark lines. Historical photos are used to source vintage cars or stream trains that would have existed at that time.
Ziemienski’s eye for design and passion for painting continues to drive his career in new directions. The never- ending supply of inspiration is at the heart of it all — as he says, “There’s so much out there to paint.”
One of the originators of the Western Pop Art movement, Billy Schenck incorporates techniques from Photorealism with a Pop Art sensibility to both exalt and poke fun at images of the West. Schenck is known for utilizing cinematic imagery reproduced in a flattened, reductivist style, where colors are displayed side-by-side rather than blended or shadowed. In the August 2014 issue of SouthwestArt magazine, his work was described as “a stance … a pendulum between the romantic and the irreverent.”
Amid the more romanticized depictions of the American West made popular by acclaimed artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, Billy Schenck’s work stands out. Neither idealized nor embellished, his paintings nevertheless explore the same iconic landscape and characters that these well-loved painters did, but with a modern flair and an irreverent humor that brings a pop sensibility to an otherwise traditional genre.
The seeds for Schenck’s flattened, reductivist style were planted when, as a boy growing up in the Midwest, he became fascinated with comic books and started emulating their distinctive style in his own doodling. He didn’t think of them as art until he happened to visit a museum that was displaying Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. It was an epiphany of sorts for him, as he realized that the intersection of art and pop culture was exactly the artistic terrain he hoped to occupy.
An art student at the time, he traveled to New York, where he serendipitously fell in with the Warhol crowd that was engaged in creating art of all kinds — painting, performance pieces, film. Schenck spent his time running errands and handling the lighting and projection for the Velvet Underground performances. While in New York he also became fascinated with old black- and-white posters pitching Western movies, and he began to paint Western scenes in the same hyper-realistic style.
Success came with dizzying suddenness for the young artist; he was championed by noted gallerist Ivan Karp, who introduced him to key figures in the New York art scene. Schenck was given a one-man show at the Warren Benedek Gallery in SoHo, and it sold out instantly. By ignoring the conventional wisdom that narrative works were too literal and political commentary too timely, he had single-handedly created a revolutionary new style that married Pop with Western art and featured a tongue-in-cheek humor that simultaneously exalted the subject matter and poked gentle fun at it. He also took the unusual step of featuring strong, fearless women in his work, a rebuke of sorts to the male-dominated world created by other Western artists.
Traditionalists in the Western genre were unsure how to react to Schenck’s work, questioning his cowboy bona fides and finding his refusal to hew to the Western orthodoxy somewhat puzzling. But Schenck was an actual cowboy, competing in rodeos and owning a working ranch, and his affection for his characters and the landscape that shaped them has tempered his occasionally mordant observations and irreverent approach. Less conventional and more provocative than typical Western artists, his work stands out among Western painters for its honesty, humor, and distinctive style.
Schenck has thus earned the nickname of Granddaddy of Western Pop Art, and his work is currently part of 58 permanent museum collections, including the Denver Art Museum, The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as numerous private and corporate art collections throughout the world.