Jo LeMay Rutledge’s art is strange. Not strange like the works of Kehinde Wiley or KAWS, both of whom were featured at the Modern this year. A different kind of strange - the kind where an artist working within an established genre - in this case, contemporary Western - delivers work that simultaneously fulfills and knocks the knees out of our expectations. The kind where a familiar ranching landscape turns out to be a technically perfect Impressionist backdrop with an impeccable Romantic period prickly pear cactus imposed over it. You know, if the Romantics were in the habit of painting cacti. And if they also included a detailed reproduction of a Moon Pie wrapper tangled among the burrs.
If you ask Jo, she’ll tell you she didn’t begin her career as an artist until 2007. This is true, a bit. It’s certainly when she got serious about it and started pursuing opportunities to show and market her work on a national scale. Since then, her paintings have found homes in prestigious permanent collections such as the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo (the organizing body behind the famous Coors Western Art Show in Denver) and BNSF Railway. She’s also acquired some high profile fans - Ed Bass and Kathy and Brad Coors are among them. One of her big breaks came when a painting she was showing at the Coors Western sold to an anonymous buyer. Later, back in Fort Worth, she ran into Mr. Bass himself. He came up to her with a twinkle in his eye. “Just so you know,” he told her. “I’m Anonymous.” Her response? “You should have told me. I could have saved you postage."
But creating art seems to come as naturally to her as breathing, and admiration from a discerning crowd is nothing new. In fact, Mr. Bass was a fan even before she “launched” her career - she’s been hand-painting his silk ties for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo for at least 25 years. She’s also a talented mimic, and at one time specialized in reproductions of famous masterpieces, a number of which still adorn the walls of high-profile Fort Worth residences. And before that, using skills she acquired in college, she focused on fashion design. Still, she didn’t find the work stimulating. Couture bored her - “it’s just math,” she says - and while she enjoyed teaching herself different painting styles, the ease with which she adapted meant that the challenge soon wore off. While walking through her home, I stopped in front of a near-perfect copy of “The Two Crowns” by Sir Francis Dicksee, the original version of which resides in the Tate in London. “What’s this?” I asked her. “Oh,” she says. “I don’t remember exactly. I did it because I wanted to learn to paint in gold.”
Nevertheless, her recent Western paintings represent a significant shift for her. Not only because she works in so many styles (often on the same canvas) but because, for the first time, she’s allowing her own unique perspective to shine through. Her philosophy is simple - “I paint what’s there” - but her eagle-eyed, often somewhat skewed, view of the world allows us to see familiar sights with new eyes. One gorgeous landscape painting shows a herd of cattle sheltering themselves from the summer heat under the branches of a mature mesquite tree. She titled it “Mesquite Grill.” Another, “Quik Trip to Bountiful,” depicts a lush field of wildflowers and peeking out from behind a grove of native oak trees, a brand new gas station. The rest of the name is a reference to the classic film The Trip to Bountiful in which an elderly woman, faced with her own mortality, takes off on a solo road trip back to her rural Texas hometown. And the wildflower field in the painting? It was a construction site, atop which now sits the Westmore Senior Living facility in Westworth Village.
Her focus on the way modernity imposes itself on contemporary Western life - cowboys on cell phones, chrome-plated big rigs idling next to rusted-out trailers - makes sense for her as an artist. In a way, the execution matches the content. Classic painting methods are made new here, working behind the scenes to reinforce a mild sense of dissonance. The scenes are familiar, but jarring. Really, the artist says it best. Of her work, she says, “You can’t put your finger on it, but once you see it, it’s there.”
Rutledge’s work is currently on
display at Artspace111.
111 Hampton St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102