Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nashville Radio: The Paintings of Jon Langford

Originally published in Puncture #43

Hank: Nashville Radio by Jon Langford
Shortly before his final exit, Hank Williams stopped to pose for one more publicity shot. Standing in some fairground hay, he smiled over his shoulder at the camera as he shook hands with a grinning fan. The Fan guffawed and reared back, his hand extended in electrified delight while the camera caught the thousandth back-slapping yuk Hank’s career. Not long afterward, both Hank and The Fan departed and faded away, and of that night only a black and white photograph remained.

Forty years later Jon Langford sees the photo and bases a portrait of Hank and The Fan on it. He adds some color, avoiding the gaudy pastels of a Nudie suit, opting instead to fill in the black and white gradations with dull, earth-toned acrylics. Langford’s brush lends a certain depth to the figures’ features, animating their ticks and twitches with finely etched lines. Serpents emblazon The Fan’s western shirt. A third eye opens in his forehead. These words adorn the picture frame: There is no end I can’t pretend that dreams will still come true/ A slave to a heart of stone I can’t escape from you.  The original publicity shot’s suggestion that somewhere there’s a heaven built on the rock of fame gets reversed, and Langford charges it with a sense of mortality as funny as it is grim. The Fan’s grin, the look in Hank’s eye, the secret joke they seem to share: Hank’s made his deal, and The Fan has come to collect his due.
Hank Signs His Contract by Jon Langford

Over the past few years, Lanford has painted roughly 30 portraits of honky-tonk heroes from the golden era of country music. For the most part, these figures now lie in their graves. Following the same approach he sed in the Hank Williams portrait, Langord draws from old publicity shots to render the images of Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, and others. He fills the surrounding negative space with red, orange, and gold ponies, skulls, guitars, and other cowboy iconography. He finishes the surface in dim lacquer, taking a razor blade to many of them, lending a time-worn effect to the paintings that makes them appear to have hung in some dingy bar for the past 50 years.
These paintings seem to have hung in one particular bar, as a matter of fact: Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, where the walls are lined with ghostly promo shots of Opry stars who once drank there. “When I first came to the States in 1988,” Langford recalls, “I went to Tootsie’s and saw all those pictures¾photos of singers I knew and others I’d never heard of, staring out of layers of historic snot and nicotine juice. They were all torn¾but all smiling out hopefully.”

If Langford had settled for reproducing old promo shots, then these paintings might simply convey a quaint country music hero-worship. But he almost always pushes the paintings into making greater thematic leaps, often inscribing the frame with fragments of song lyrics or found phrases. Two central themes persist throughout his work: Cowboys and Death.

These pictures look like folk art, but Langford’s work is neither “primitive” or “na├»ve,” to use the questionable terms that often come up when describing the work of pure folk painters like Joe Light, Mose Tolliver, or Howard Finster. Those painters are mostly self-taught. Often their work looks as depthless as a road sign, thus its charm. But Langford’s, for better or worse, betrays more technical skill.

He also dapples in printmaking and etching¾processes that seem to maintain a dialog with his painting. “The one-off paintings are kind of perverse,” says Langford. “They’re so informed by the process of reproduction,” adding “perverse is good.”

A fairly extensive reading of pop cultural figures (in this case C&W) also informs Langford’s images. Folk artists also love their pop cultural heroes, from blues legends to basketball stars. Howard Finster has his Elvises. Artist Chuckie is completely obsessed with the Jacksons. But where their paintings offer sincere tributes, Langford brings more literacy to bear--how could he not?--and thus more irony.

One portrait of Ernest Tubb, titled “Sleeping on the Bus,” depicts the Texas Troubadour cracking a faded smile somewhere in country music heaven. In the surrounding negative space, a tiny woman, the color of flame, “dances with death in her dollar dress.” Meanwhile a second death angel, clad in western wear, strums a guitar. The inscription at the top of the frame hints and old-time religion’s classic struggle between serving the devil and serving the lord. It reads “Saturday Satin Sunday Saint.”

Whose image and art best embodies this conflict better than Jerry Lee Lewis? Langford bases his portrait of the Killer on the picture sleeve art from the first Sun EP. Here the head of Jerry Lee floats engulfed in hellfire, a golden lock of hair hanging over a face full of holy ghost joy and violence. Once again, Langford replicates the original shot in acrylic, but surrounds the floating head with four skulls, each tattooed with the words Yes! No! Now! Never! By now the story of Jerry Lee Lewis’ personal apocalypse deserves its own Revelations-style chapter: it could be named after the inscription at the top of Langford’s portrait of the Killer: “The Church of the Almost Here End.” 

As far as Langford’s favorite subject, Country Music, that “Almost Here End” done already come a long time ago. Travel to the outskirts of his vision, out beyond Hank’s grave, out beyond the spot where Ernest Tubb lies all but forgotten, and you’ll reach that place where that ghostly form dances with death in her dollar dress. She won’t get out of this world alive. 

Images borrowed from the book Nashville Radio: art, words, and music by Jon Langord, Verse Chorus Press, 2006. 

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