In 1924, cowboy poet Bruce Kiskaddon published the first version of a poem that would ultimately be titled Looking Backward. It told the story of a weary cowboy looking out over the desert as he takes stock of his life and the adventures he experienced on horseback.

Do you recollect the country that you knew in days gone by?

Where the prairie met the sunrise and the mountains met the sky.

Where you trailed through rugged cañons and on windy mesas wide,

Or you crossed the rollin’ prairie on a long and lonely ride.

Kiskaddon goes on to describe all manner of cowboy afflictions: stampedes, soggy sleeping conditions, freezing toes, stinking horse blankets, alkali watering holes and limping legs. But as the man looks out over the wild country, his memory shifts from the calamity that befell him to the beauty of the land. There may be rough trail behind him, but he plods on—forward, forward, forward into the desert’s great unknown.

It’s hard not to read the poem and think of Glenn Dean’s cowboy figures, who all seem to be at great peace with the desert around them. The clouds converge above, the land rolls up and down under sand and sage, shadows sweep over distant landmarks—the land is volatile and alive—and yet the figure is resolute and never breaks pace. He’s been here before, maybe as a boy, and he’s seeing it again with old eyes.

Twilight, oil, 32 x 40”

“I do draw from my own experiences out in nature,” Dean says. “I find that solitary time in nature to be soul feeding. Having that time alone in the desert, or by the ocean, or in forest, allows me a certain communion with something larger than myself. And for me that’s a clearer reality than so much of what surrounds us all in today’s world. While the figures represented in my work may not be thinking of anything in particular, I think I’m trying to get across a feeling more than anything else. In each painting that feeling is slightly different. I try to have the overall impression of the figure reflect his surroundings. A stormy scene, for example, influences the rider on horseback and could represent a more ominous tone. On the other hand, a quiet sunset might provide the rider with a moment of peaceful reflection. In my work in general, it’s the landscape which dictates in my mind…as the figure is ultimately secondary to the power of nature.”

Dean’s newest show, Roaming the West, will open September 12 at the Legacy Gallery’s location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and it will feature his contemplative and serene cowboy paintings, many of which set the stage for stories told by his viewers, but not necessarily by the artist, who likes to let his audiences wander through the works unencumbered. “Some artists are better at storytelling because they have a story in mind when they paint, and the painting is just a response to that storytelling. I try to keep all that really vague just so viewers can draw their own conclusions,” Dean says. “A lot of time I paint something because it has an interesting composition. It’s all very visual and picturebased, as opposed to story-based, reasoning.”

His emphasis on the composition, as opposed to the story, leaves a door wide open for viewers, who can take an image and immediately make it their own, whether it’s a story of the American frontier or early Western settlers or solitary cowboys riding the range looking for lost cattle or, with Kiskaddon’s permission, a cowboy reflecting back on his long and weather-worn life. New works in the show include A Friendship, showing a female figure who pats at the head of a horse; Into the Canyon, a dramatic vertical work filled with bands of rippling shadow; He Rode by Moonlight, one of several prominent nocturnes; and Twilight, a stunning work that shows how Dean pushes light to the very edge of its limits.

Twilight was really challenging because it has a strong silhouette on the night sky, so keeping those figures dark enough to remain in silhouette, but also be strong shapes that have some information in there, is really tricky. Something too light on the figure and it would throw it all off. It had to all be in the right key so the light could explain some of what was happening,” the artist says. “It was a lot of fun putting together, though, especially that sunset, how it transitions from pinks and yellows to greens and blues. I had a very subtle window to make that shift and still have the painting be predominantly warm in color. If you follow the painting up above her head, that point of light is Venus, who was the god of fertility. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the pregnant woman, but for this one there is a little bit of story there. The models were friends of mine and they are expecting their second child.”

What’s exciting about a work like Twilight– or even Drifters, an impressive horse and rider painting destined for Dean’s Jackson Hole show—is how exciting the painting is without all the flourish and excess that screams “important work.” It’s understated, subtle and reverberates with gentle nuance. It’s not flashy, but it packs a punch.

Navajo Country, oil, 30 x 30”

Drifters was all about that light colored horse, which tends to take on the colors of the ground and other colors around it. I liked the idea of this overcast kind of day where the rider could be riding in shadow, but the sun would be lighting everything up behind him,” the painter says. “Another thing I was really going for on this one was the angle of his torso and his head. That tilt in his head made the painting. It’s weird how those tiny details make a big difference. If his head were straight I don’t think the painting would have that forward momentum it has now.”

Dean lives and paints in Cambria, California, and, like his subjects, he frequently can be found in nature, where the land recharges his batteries. In many ways he becomes his own subject: a man alone with his thoughts in the desert. What is he seeing? What is he thinking about? Where is his mind at? Questions stream in and one by one he plucks them from the dry air, answering as many as he can but also painting without every answer laid out in front of him.

“Being outdoors is sort of a humbling experience- it’s a reset button, a calming experience, it’s difficult and wonderful and all these things that make me press forward. I love going out into the landscape with my paint box, and just standing there in the wind and the warmth as I try to paint something,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll get something worth keeping, but even if I have to throw some out it keeps the muscles going. In the studio you have time, but outside in the field you have an urgency that creates some interesting things.”

Like the artist himself, Dean’s subjects push ever forward, trying to find a place in the land, a place where they belong and are at peace. Kiskaddon had some closing thoughts on the subject:

No, you haven’t made a fortune, and your hair is white. You’re old.

But you wouldn’t swap your memories; not for heaps of shinin’ gold.

For whenever you get lonely you put on a big review, of the people and the places and the hosses that you knew.

You can hear the songs and stories, you can see the camp fires blaze

As you live again the glories of your grand old cow boy days

The Rise, oil, 24 x 24”

This article was originally published in Western Art Collector, September, 2019. Read Full Article Here.