Echoes From Big Sky Country

We're all products of our origins. Joe Andoe is from Oklahoma, his paintings echo its native strains and a state of mind where self-image is shaped by vastness, where necessity is a guide, where freedom and wildness inform a concept of beauty, and where self-reliance is a democratic principle. These are the common traits of a string of self-made Americans, running from Jefferson to Emerson to Henry Ford, from Warhol to Madonna. They cut a wide swath. Joe Andoe shares these traits. He also has the finesse and "chops" of a studio musician, never making what musicians call "clams" - those lapses in concentration and exhibitions of ineptness - somehow managing a painting on the first take, which provides the relative freedom to express himself without trickery or special effects. That takes talent and skill. It's relative, of course, because art, like nature, belies all the planning and confidence in the world. Everyday skills, like artistic talent, involve abilities and habits that sink with practice into a kind of forgetfulness: the more they become part of you, the less conscious you are about them. But talent is a special skill - "originality must be its primary property," noted Immanuel Kant, founder of modern aesthetics, in his Critique of Judgment. Since then, innovation and progress have become the modern 'tradition.'

In high school Joe Andoe already had a talent for drawing. So at O.U., while looking for a way to prop up his grade point average, a drawing class provided him with one of those predestined coincidences we associate with self-discovery. The gathering of peers glancing over his shoulder ignited a light bulb of self-recognition, not to mention an awareness that he could, in fact, work a page. Ultimately it led to a curriculum switch. (Instances like this also validate the idea that art-making is a gift, not an occupation.) In 1976, at 21, the sudden death of his father drove his discovery home, adding what early modernists called inner necessity to an innate ability, whereupon the emptying of one vessel spawned the replenishment of another, focusing his abilities toward higher ends.

Before he came to New York, Andoe had already discovered the transformational capabilities of art. However New York, a province for people of talent's ilk, also demanded uniqueness, meaning that success required some proprietary control over a style. He didn't have to invent it, of course. Roy Lichtenstein mastered a style simply by recontextualizing comic-book imagery. What was important, he discovered, was to make something identifiably his. Andoe began to make monochromatic paintings, mostly black, using a reductive process of wiping away paint to reveal an image. This was an essentially modern tactic, in which painting is hybridized with another medium, here, an age-old reduction technique employed by sculptors and printmakers was applied to what had traditionally been the painter's additive process. Apocrypha has long credited Michelangelo with a visionary's capacity to chip away at rock and reveal what lay intrinsically within as pure potential. Andoe wiped away a surface of paint, removing darkness to reach light. His vision was Oklahoman: oil, big spaces, big skies, the land. His subjects were simple but timeless - an oak branch, a barren horizon, horses, and his tarlike surfaces were delicately aerated and faintly voluminous, always adhering to natural appearances. Like a down-home songsmith, he proffered an art that was emotionally reticent, yet as big and hip and airy as a Ry Cooder slide guitar riff, transforming quiet but familiar landscape ingredients into modern-styled icons - still lifes with soul. Then he did something else. He scripted his name like a folk graffito onto his canvases, sometimes right into the image.

Joe Andoe: three syllables - two short one long - a metrical unit called an amphibrach, the central one a hovering metrical accent balanced between two long assonant vowels, a great name for scripting, its parallel endings reiterating themselves like an echo. This is your standard folk or graffiti artist's M.O., but Andoe is no naïf; you see that in the skill with which he paints, in the way his signature is perfectly scripted, as only a true primitive or an adroit student of Pop art and Pop art's guru, Andy Warhol, could script it. Coming to New York in the 1980's, a time when art was in the midst of a regurgitative renewal, Joe Andoe brought a hip Sooner's sophistication and style to the late-modern folk genre of the reproduction. What he did wasn't so much conscious or contrived as simple and self-sensed, the way garage bands brought real feeling into a genre of music that had become over-produced. In his paintings this meant juicing up formal styles like Minimalism and post-painterly abstraction and rechanneling Pop art as fellow Oklahoman Ed Ruscha did, only in an updated way, identifiably Andoe's. He turned scruffy horizons into an abstracted Ando-land: a burnished cornstalk looked like a reconstituted petroglyph, a flying V of geese skimmed an Indian-red sky, a white swan flew a geometric pattern across a black Mars night, horses in three-quarter profile become cameos of a Southwesterner's memory. By appending his name he infused a personal element, which, by the arcane quiddity of late modern art, also became an Everyman's tag. It was their familiar style that gave them the aura of a reproduction, they felt new but had the soul of something old.

But by the 1980's America's great Classical Age was the 1950's, and its self-image had come to mix its might with the epic entertainment genre it was globally projecting. From this perspective, Andy Warhol was our Michelangelo and the high priest of our greatest folk art, publicity - that holy capitalist art of putting on your audience, of wearing them and revealing to them the trophies and trappings, emblems and icons of the accessible world. Warhol laid the groundwork for late modernists to invest art with the freedom and wildness of rock and roll. He was the shaman who turned stars into iconic divinities. By contrast, Andoe's finely crafted, land-based art is a smaller yet more timeless Americana than a Warhol Marilyn or Jackie O. - and certainly more spiritual than the avatar of New York cool. Andoe's paintings, in their ebony quietness, are also more plaintive and sincere - a word that lost its luster in the 1980s' aesthetic of power and possession. Nevertheless, they echo Warhol's pseudo-folk style, particularly Warhol's earliest paintings of dollar signs and newspaper pages and the like, which were both goofy and remarkably facile.

But Joe Andoe is an artist of the soul, and not the surface. His non-esoteric images focus on the land and its unadorned flora and fauna, not fashion's haunts or magazine pleasures. His recent works portray horses - creatures of necessity and indefatigable travail, which technology long ago usurped and transformed into creatures of sport, entertainment, and leisure. Andoe is not, however, an equestrian fop. His horses are more spiritual than physical in their representative serenity, gazing before us, at us, as if to accept fate as a constituent of our necessity. His artistic inheritance traces back to other arch-Americans - Avery, Rothko, Still - through late-Seventies Image painting, ultimately to culminate as a postmodern hybrid of them all, incorporating agrarian iconography with a style that suits New York's haut monde. Andoe's starkly beautiful depictions also invoke the opposing metaphysical forces of material impermanence and spiritual replenishment and strongly contrast with art trends and the politics of fashion. To top it off, he doesn't struggle with form or content.

The art world is still fraught with poetes maudits - self-searchers looking for ways to transform intense feelings into equally intense forms. Artist manques often begrudge people with talent. Few accomplish that transformation easily or have the wherewithal to express the things they know and feel so unabashedly and with such simplicity and grace.

Jeff Rian

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