A man in a white cowboy hat drives a horse and cart through a field. He turns his back to the viewer from Golden hour, an oil painting by Dennis Ziemienski. The man’s reddish shirt is a shade or two brighter than the cliffs in front of him, which are half in the sun and half in the shade. The ground is brushed with sage. On the horizon, a thunderstorm is gathering.
The light in this 30-by-40-inch southwest landscape might inspire a viewer to seek out a rainbow where the sun hits the darkening sky. But it’s just a little too early for the rainbows. This painting has an after-work feel. The man goes home.
Although Golden hour looks like a real place in time, it is not. Ziemienski creates compositions from photographs he takes on road trips, as well as vintage images. He also poses and photographs models when he needs them. “The cliffs were one thing, the clouds another, the wagon another,” he said in a video interview from his home in Glen Ellen, Calif. âI used to xerox my photographs, cut them out with scissors and stitch them all together. Grill it. My daughter is a digital artist and she taught me Photoshop and Illustrator. Now I go with jpegs and tiffs, improve them, extend them.
Dennis Ziemienski: new paintings, presents 10 works produced in 2021, now exhibited at the Blue Rain Gallery. The 74-year-old Vietnamese veteran launched his fine art career in the 1990s, after three decades as a graphic designer, working in New York and California. He grew up in the Bay Area. As a child, his parents took Ziemienski and his brothers on road trips through California and the Southwest, where roadside attractions presented themselves along the way.
âRefreshments are shaped like giant oranges. Meteor City, somewhere in Arizona, where there was this space-like thing. We never stopped, âhe says. âI couldn’t stop anywhere until I was 20. “
Blue Rain Gallery executive director Denise Phetteplace says Ziemienski’s graphic sensibility ties his work together, but his paintings âcover a lot of groundwork. He has more serious pictorial landscapes, like Golden hour, and pueblo village scenes with indigenous people and their pots. Then there’s the Route 66 work. Some pieces look like postcards or travel posters from the Depression era. They all fall under one umbrella, which is his delight for the West and the Southwest. “
Imbued with nostalgia, Ziemienski’s work unfolds freely between the 1920s and the 1950s – what he calls the era of orange box advertising. Classic cars, neon signs and horses populate its mesas and panoramas. When it includes people, it often gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of them. The effect can be somewhat three-dimensional. In Song of the Trail, a singing cowboy plays the guitar as he rides a white horse directly towards the viewer. The cowboy is caught in the middle of a verse, singing his heart out. Ziemienski was inspired by figures like Roy Rogers and the Coen Brothers’ most recent Netflix Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).
âPlaying guitar and riding a horse is a mystery to me,â he says. “Like walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
When he first changed careers, Ziemienski tried to put aside his training as a graphic designer in favor of a “good” artist. But after about 10 years of this, collectors demanded to buy his old advertising sketches, and he realized that the commercial battle against the fine art was pointless. âA strong composition sells. â¦ I decided to throw away those preconceptions, to do what was in my heart and what I love to do. Even though it looks like commercial art, it is art.
Ziemienski generally cites four illustrators as direct inspirations: the Americans JC Leyendecker (1874-1951) and NC Wyeth (1882-1945), the German Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949) and the British poster artist Tom Purvis (1888-1959). âNone of those artists that I totally adore,â he says. âHohlwein took color block shapes and turned them into pictures. I think it was due to the printing capabilities at the time. And Purvis. These two guys put together some images that hit you right in the face, just the harshness of the design. Leyendecker redesigned the shapes and faces while making them look like readable characters. He put edges on things and he used the worm’s eye sight. NC Wyeth was more painterly than the other guys, who were more designer. I wanted to bring a little of him into my work. But its subject is not my subject. I am not at all in the war. There is nothing glorious about it.
You can see each man’s individual influences, but Ziemienski synthesizes them in a unique style that tends towards realism while being both humorous and romantic. He says he comes closest to abstraction when he paints neon lights and clouds, both of which appear in Lights of New Mexico. The subject running through the frame is a glossy maroon 1950 Mercury Monterey. A cluster of neon signs behind it advertise motels, cafes, and curiosity stores. A bank of clouds, dense like smoke from a fire, rises in the sky.
âI love both lit and unlit neon lights because of all the shadows they create. And you can do it all with the clouds. They come in all colors, not just white or gray. Blue, pink, green. You can really go wild and it will always look like a cloud, âhe says.
Among its panoply of Western subjects are Native Americans, sometimes with their works of art or on horseback. In these compositions, Ziemienski resists sentimentality or exoticism. In Potter at the Pueblo, a woman adjusts the striped blanket around her shoulders with one hand, while holding a black ceramic vase with the other. At his feet there are more pots. Her facial expression is neutral, absorbed in the mundane and momentary task at hand. It could be a snapshot taken on a road trip or a moment of rest for an artist in Indian Market.
âI am fascinated by the Pueblo people and the Navajo people. Their buildings and their arts and crafts are just wonderful, âhe says. âI do not enter into sacred things. I describe the figure and the device, and maybe a pueblo building – but I will not go into the kachinas or [religious] symbols. I paint just what I see, the same way I would describe people anywhere, in Los Angeles or Chicago.
But Ziemienski’s love is the West, where the landscape begs to be recorded in vivid colors, so there will never be a lack of subject matter. âChelly Canyon, Monument Valley and all the places in between that can be manipulated and rendered more than they actually are. You can really work with it, âhe says. âYou can put clouds or, what really works in a landscape is put a figure there, an object to show the scale. If you don’t show the scale, it’s ho-hum. But if you show how small the horse is compared to these cliffs, it makes for a powerful board, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. â