Clayton Porter: One Trick Pony
GF Contemporary, Santa Fe
August 20 through September 7, 2021
By VITTORIA BENZINE, August 2021
On August 20th, One Trick Pony bucks open at GF Contemporary in Santa Fe, NM. This fourth solo show from locally-based artist Clayton Porter collects new graphite drawings on gessoed panels depicting determined bronco tamers engaged in wars of raw stamina with their steeds. Porter’s hyperrealistic, monochrome drawings measure no more than 2” x 2” in any direction, but their canvases average up to 5’ x 5’. The title One Trick Pony itself is a tongue-and-cheek nod to the repetition at play within Porter’s subject matter, elaborating on this artist’s most commercially successful work to date.
Part of Porter’s success with this subject matter stems from the nature of the market where he works, a veritable destination for the consumption of cowboy culture and its romantic frontier accoutrements—turquoise, sunsets, and adobe walls, but also Marlboro Reds and revolvers. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, cowboy culture has undoubtedly influenced Porter’s life, although he never actually participated in the phenomenon. That opportunity was ripped from his narrative at age five, he told me one afternoon over Zoom, when his parents finalized their divorce. At the core of Porter’s cowboy artwork lies the mournful melancholy underpinning all bravery, clinging for dear life to a force beyond our control.
The artist recounted how his first Bronc Rider series came to be, informed by two events that’d transpired in his life a decade prior. At thirty, Porter was working for Bruce Nauman at the ranch where Nauman keeps horses in Galisteo, NM. There, Nauman lent Porter a VHS tape from California-based horseman Brian Neubert. In the instructional film, Neubert dons a lapel mic and enters a circular pen with a wild horse, narrating his thoughts, actions, and strategies in taming the beast.
“The horse has conflict within itself,” Porter told me. Fight and flight instincts dance a calculated minuet within this creature that either wants to flee danger or find safety in a herd. Neubert’s approach eschewed conquest for strategic kindness, building trust with the horse until it deemed seeking solidarity with the human preferable to fleeing (or worse).
At the time that he received this tape, Porter was also involved in a six month affair with a married woman. Their fraught relationship possessed parallel elements of trust and tactical maneuvering. “She was with her husband, and she was still loving him, and I was in love with her,” Porter recalled. “She was saying that she was in love with me too… I didn't think she was lying to me. She was with somebody and in love with somebody else.” Perhaps without anticipating the radical code shifts this mentality requires, Porter forcibly learned to separate ownership from love, relinquishing his claim to this woman to preserve their romance. “That was just going to be enough, or I was going to be in misery,” he said.
“By the end, I was completely miserable,” Porter continued. That kind of love requires building trust, like a rider in the ring with a wild horse. It is a difficult and rare achievement.
Adultery is no act of cowboy integrity, but taking meaningful emotional risks where one deems relevant does activate that sadness underpinning bravery, the complete romance of it all. Connecting the theme of this relationship to horsemanship, Porter thus began his first Untitled (Bronc Rider) series ten years ago, paying slight stylistic homage to his lost lover by drawing in pink colored pencil.
One Trick Pony comments on the artist’s continued return to this subject matter, but its works also explore the symbolism through new media. “There's something about graphite that is more akin to an old black and white photograph,” Porter stated. The nostalgic atmosphere of this material takes the artist back to his first experiences with uncertainty—the dissolution of his first realities—his parents’ divorce and his move to suburban Colorado Springs, his father’s move from team roping into motocycles.
“Artists are supposed to be creative and whimsical. They’re supposed to elaborate on a theme,” Porter remarked. Even with these additional innovations, the artist experiences genuine discomfort at the implications of his repeated subject matter, discomfort with the unorthodox proportions between negative and positive space at play throughout One Trick Pony.
During one trip to Pompei, Porter visited an excavated exhibit with red walls embellished by several very small paintings. That experience heightened his appreciation for minutia, and reinforced his existing practice with delicate drawings. “It didn't need to be big, it didn't need to be grandiose, it didn't have to have huge movement in huge strokes,” Porter recalled.
He recognizes that insecurity can lure him into more grandiose projects fueled by the reactions he expects to receive from viewers. Going smaller thwarts this drive. Such scale draws the eye closer and closer, allowing Porter’s hyperrealistic detail to unfold with the viewer’s every step. “Intimacy is powerful,” he continued. Needlessly going larger can prove a missed opportunity.
The payoff is a confidential gaze into the core of this country’s collective identity. “Frontier” in the cowboy context is code for stolen land. Directed at the individual, exploring emotional frontiers offers access to untapped personal power. In this shifting America where we no longer regard cowboys the unequivocal moral victors of their frontiers, Porter’s heartfelt overtures towards his own emotional depths bring new dimensions to a flat symbol of sheer dominance.
Take note—Porter’s images of the bronc rider don’t use the approach that Neubert taught him. They depict the forcible mounting of a bucking bronco and riding it into submission. There’s a reason this imagery resonates with human beings—a serious element of wrestling pervades human existence. However, this dance takes place with no other entity but uncertainty itself. Enticing the viewer in closer, One Trick Pony collects commentary on Porter’s own search for the next symbol to resemble this ambivalent reality, but not without taking one long last vulnerable look at the earnest stories that brought him to this place of understanding. WM
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