Alister Warman
The three horsemen who ride out in The Most Beautiful Western ride not into the sunset but towards a gathering gloom. And perhaps they ride – two of them, anyway – to meet their fate strung from the leafless branches of a wintry tree. Here, evidently, are badlands.

Prevailing through David Ross’s multi-part drawing is a mood of disenchantment; the emotional territory seems forlorn, murky. Essentially colourless, the drawing refuses any obvious drama or legible sequence of incident. Rather, each part is self-contained. And, even though there is a repetition of certain images, a sense of disruptedness predominates. There are acknowledgements of the repertoire of the motifs which signal the Western genre – rock-pinnacled landscapes, card tables, covered wagons, steers crossing a river, a lonely bison – but these serve more as emblems reinforcing the mood of the drawing than as any sort of narrative armature. As far as there is a connectedness between the discrete elements it lies with the men and women who people the drawing.

Mainly portrayed in a head and shoulders format, the male figures in The Most Beautiful Western appear youngish, unkempt, and aimless; they are shown as if in ‘wanted’ posters. Yet, deviants or desperadoes as they may be, we sense their end will come more with a whimper than with a bang. They will not be out-gunned, but undone through typhus or tuberculosis? And as for the cross-dressing duo, they compound the impression that the outlawed state is more a matter of dolorous confusion than of spirited defiance.

The women in the drawing seem to occupy a different realm. Are they the mothers, the wives – or lovers – of the assorted chancers and two-bit, mixed–up Billy-the-Kids? Whatever, they have a positive spirit about them. Even if their men are a dead loss, the women, it is possible to imagine, will somehow endure. In most instances we view the backs of their heads as they look outwards. These ‘portraits’ have a quiet monumentality but also an aura of vulnerability. Take, for instance, the female figure depicted with the school-teacherish ‘bun’, shown against a surround of drenched vermilion. She may simply be admiring the sunset, but it seems more that she is witnessing some sort of conflagration – it is as if her tears and the ashes of her burned-up hopes provide the media, so to speak, for the making of The Most Beautiful Western.

Charcoal is the primary medium of the drawing but frequently it is mixed with pen and ink, watercolour, pencil, gouache. Just as there is no evident programme to the sequence of images, there exists no sort of scheme in Ross’s material means. If there is a starkness and austerity characteristic to the whole work it is arrived at through a drawing process that involves impatient, provisional strokes, scratching, bruising, smirching and hurried washes. Refinement and crudeness co-exist. Moreover, along with oblique references to Millet and Van gogh there are smuggled appropriations from Van Eyck and Patenir.

Embedded in the drawing are doubtless fragments of memories from visits to the cinema Ross made as a child when, in the post-War years, the Western enjoyed its widest popularity and delineated an unequivocal moral landscape in black and white. Yet any such recollections are overlaid by something more troubled and complex. The Most Beautiful Western is conjured through a prism nuanced by doubt and disillusion. Here the Prairie is a barren zone; here are sad lands.

Copyright © Alister Warman 2003 All Rights Reserved