Originally published in 'Fine Art Magazine'
Johnny Cash by Wes Freed
Wes Freed’s paintings, like his f ilm r oles , ( J im S trammels ’ “Thrillbillies” and “Degenerates”), can be savage, extreme, imperative. His songs are no less intense, though by contrast, quietly fierce.
He communicates, through all of these mediums, a one-man universe full of stark dualities that are uniquely Southern. It is not the South you are accustomed to seeing, not one you expect to see. He exposes the dark, gritty underside of all that, both good and bad equally. The omnipresent possibility of both permeates his strange, sparse landscapes.
“To me”, Freed said when I asked him what the ominous tone that crept into his work was reflective of in a recent interview, “ominous isn’t really bad, it means something interesting is going to happen.”
His work overlaps to such an extent he almost sings his paintings and paints his songs. Freed himself, his wife and long-time collaborator Jyl, his truck and his home studio all seem to overlap with it as well. All are best described as looking like live people, places and things from Crow Holler, the setting for most of his work.
Crow Holler is a world built from memory and memory of memory. In all of the forms Freed's art takes, its' corners and crevices are exposed, piece by piece. As this occurs, an anticipatory peace emerges.
A one-eyed owl hovers on the edge of an eerie landscape.Withered trees scratch a lonesome Moon. You have the sense, as you look and listen, that something surprising is just around the corner.
Pat MacDonald,Wes Freed, Lonesome Liz
Smiling sirens beckon, hint that you should come closer; their moon-round eyes all aglow. Faceless
men linger on lonesome roads, creep out of dark caverns, waiting, expecting. You feel they look back at you. Their expressions have an effect similar to that of Goya’s portraits; their glances suggest secrets, possibly profound ones. Here, a pipesmoking skeleton grins, leans in to tell an ancient tale. There, women with their souls in their eyes wait for you with half-hidden smiles.
The images and words that emerge from Freed's inner world are haunting. Once you have seen and heard Dixie Butcher, Cecil Lone Eye, the Conjure Man or any of the other Crow Holler folk, you find you can leave them for as long you like but neither they nor the place quite leaves you. It's familiar, comfortable but also foreboding. Some of the people and places are just shadows. Some are skeletal. Others burst with life.
“We've found it! Come in! Come see! Here! It's right over here!”, the people and creatures who live there all seem to say. You feel the “It” they speak of is something you’ll recognize the second you see it. “It” is something you wanted so badly you hid it far, far way long ago. “It”
vanished in the material world but hasn’t gone away here.
No, in Crow Holler you find it again, tucked in a corner of the world of dreams where it’s almost always autumn. There air is thick with the odor of hay and spilled gasoline. Crow Holler is, in part, a re-creation of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Freed spent his childhood. He described it as a
place, "full of old dirt roads, straggling trees on hillsides; corroded by time and progress.”
He left the Valley for Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received a degree in painting and printmaking. Like Chagall, he never returned to the place that his work often reflects wistfully but his memories permeate his work. His memories are layered with those of his Grandfather who in turn, was layering stories his Great-Great Uncles told him as a child.
“My Grandfather’s Uncles filled his head with stories and he filled mine with them and some more of his own. When you’re a little kid you believe everything adult’s say. They’ve blended together in my mind, formed a backdrop.” He laughed.
“My brother and I spent a lot of time with my Grandfather," he continued. "We lived on the same farm
and he was just a walk down a dirt road away. He had a ‘51 Ford pick-up , open on both ends, that we'd sit in. He parked it in his corn crib to keep it out of the rain. We'd play with our jack knives
while he told us stories.”
“That truck is almost a shrine now, still full of the things that were in it the day he died", he told me, "like an old corn shucker with “The Boss” engraved on the bottom, Lucky and Camel packs,
receipts going back to before I was born. I used to go sit in it every day and pretend I was driving," he laughed. “One day, the truck disappeared. I asked my parents what happened to it and they suggested I call the Sherriff,” he laughed again, “turned out they’d gotten it running for me for my birthday. They forgot to flush the radiator though; it never drove right after that.”
There are not only Southern but also outlaw undertones to Freed's work. These may center most strongly on tales of a Confederate General named Mosby. His Grandfather's Uncle's, who had been
Calvarymen with him in the War, painted tales of him that match the devil-may care spirit of much of Freed's work.
“Mosby did a lot behind the lines,” he said then laughing added, “he and his men also robbed trains. Some of the men were hung a public square with a note on them that read, “This will be fate of Mosby and all his men.They weren’t outlaws; they were all sanctioned but were spies and guerillas.”
“ It ’s such an intangible thing, communicating the whole idea of the War, Mosby, the Valley,” he said. “It’s just a feeling for me, something personal that would be hard for someone else to understand because it’s so much a part of what’s going on in my brain. It’s like when I was eight and had this buzzing in my head after I’d taken some Robitussin for a cold. It’s just a feeling. There’s smells, sounds, sights; the smell of the truck and the corn drying in the cribs, the barn.”
The nostalgic wistfulness of his work is not unlike that seen in the paintings of Brueghel but with darker undertones. It's as though we're looking at the phantoms of lost dreams. In a sense we are. The places and times he draws from are irretrievably gone.
“Brueghel was painting a vanishing culture. His landscapes weren’t completely romanticized but you get the feeling that he loved the farms that he drew,” Freed said. “My paintings are in some ways are similar, like a memory."
Also like Brueghel, Freed sometimes brings out chimeras from a gallery of oddities that's often a little sinister, frightening. They lend a supernatural quality to his work, which has a touch of the Danse Macabre to it as well. Skeletons often dance in Crow Holler and other ancient rituals unfold. Unlike traditional Danse Macabre paintings, the common themes of remorse, hysteria, hopelessness, the grave, are absent. There is a common sense of mystery, however, of both profound contentment and wild abandon.
I asked Freed if the idealized dream of lost happiness spread across an often ominous, spooky landscape didn't seem like a contradiction to him. He said, “both the dark and light of it are reassuring to me. Beautiful is a subjective term. I see it as a paradise. When I was a kid, the idea of the Sunday school version of Heaven scared the Hell out of me. No dead trees? No old cars? No rust or broke down old barns? That didn't sound like Paradise to me.”
“What would you find in Paradise?” I asked.
“A beat up old garage with a cool car and a bunch of motorcycles; a place where it wouldn’t rain a lot but it would be cloudy a lot and the temperature would be just right,” he replied with knowing calm. “It would be full of the smell of baking chicken, gas and motor oil, things like that. Paradise isn’t really planned out. Crow Holler is almost like a dream state, like that half awake place you go to when you’re a kid."
“In the winter, my Gr andmot her cooked on a wood stove and my Grandfather had a rocking chair that sat next to it. There was a set of steps that went up the back way to what used to be my Dad’s bedroom. We’d sit on the steps and look out the window while she cooked. In that sort of setting, you can romanticize just about anything. That setting, to me, is part of Paradise; full of the smell of a wood stove and whatever's cooking; with Grandma downstairs plucking a chicken.”
“I think with my art I’m mostly trying to convince myself that the place really does exist somewhere. Maybe I’ll find it, in a metaphysical sort of way,” he concluded.
In Freed’s work, fantastic imagery is used to create a dream world that mirrors our own. The monsters, chimeras and bizarre fantasies that come to life in Crow Holler are visual metaphors, a private language of symbols. As with Bosch's, the paintings lead the viewer to question the conflicting qualities encountered there. Sometimes this leads us to question the ones we encounter within.