Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, local artist John West Townsend’s Gobi Designs was commissioned to paint a 60-foot mural on the side of a Carbondale barn. The mural was to be a traditional rendering of the American flag.The stars and stripes had previously cropped up in Townsend’s work, in 1999’s “Independence Glance,” a work on an aluminum press plate. The mural, however, a straightforward replication of Old Glory, put Townsend in the same mood of superpatriotism that gripped much of the country back then. Townsend began repeating the red, white and blue icon, framing them in the rough barn wood that had collected over a 50-year period on the McClain Flats property of contractor Kenny Moore, giving the flags an aged and noble look.”It was a patriotic statement,” said the 35-year-old Old Snowmass resident, who goes by the name of West. “It was solidarity after 9/11.”
Things have changed over the last three-and-a-half years. The United States launched war against Iraq. The country divided into distinct color fields of blue and red. Few feel that sense of American solidarity that was evident in the last third of 2001. Townsend’s unblinking patriotism turned into a questioning stance.Townsend, who has been making art since his teens and feels “out of synch” when he isn’t making art, didn’t give up on the stars and stripes. But the traditional red, white and blue didn’t seem like a statement consistent with his feelings. Instead, he kept with the theme, but altered things. Various colors, from pink to black, replaced the standard red, white and blue. The design elements were rearranged. And with these slight adjustments, art that reflected unquestioning support was transformed into pieces that forced questioning. Townsend’s recent work is made with the same materials, in the same style, and is still instantly recognizable as representations of the American flag. But it is almost the mirror image of the original work.”Now that we’ve gone to war, George W. Bush has been re-elected – they’re more question pieces now,” said Townsend. “They question my country: ‘Where are we going?’ They just make you think.”Townsend has dug even deeper into the issues of America – what comprises it, how can it hold together? And how can its various parts be represented? His most recent work reflects these thoughts, and again, it was just the simplest of artistic maneuvers that bring that out. In these pieces, the design elements are further scattered, with blocks of wood separating stars and striped into their own discrete neighborhoods. It conveys a different idea than the earlier issue of loyalty to the country; now Townsend is probing the many factions that make up the United States. Add to that the unusual colors and their connotations – Pink for homosexuals? Yellow for optimists? Black for doomsayers? – and the work raises the issue with bottomless opportunity for examination.
“There are so many different people and cultures that run together in this country,” said Townsend, a native of the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1997. “The red, white and blue is somewhat limiting. We’re a country of, what, 300 million people? The American flag is red, white and blue, very traditional. But our country is so large and so varied.”Townsend continues to see the work as patriotic – and not only the work, but also himself . A 17th-generation American who traces his family history in the New World to the 1680s on his father’s side and the 1750s on his mother’s, Townsend says, “I’m about as American as you can get.”The questions that Townsend is posing in his art are getting plenty of attention. At the Aspen Artists Cooperative, the locals-only gallery at Aspen Highlands that Townsend founded and manages, he has sold 17 flag pieces since the beginning of 2005, a number that amazes even himself. Among the visitors to the gallery was a leasing agent for the Empire State Building; two of Townsend’s 10-by-8-foot pieces are now housed in the midtown Manhattan building’s lobby. Townsend, who is now showing his work at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, is pleased to see his takes on a vital icon of America attracting so many eyes.
“I made them as questions,” he said. “I want people to question their beliefs in their country.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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