The art of Robert Ransom

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – There are two kinds of artists. Those who will pontificate about the meaning behind their work, and those who, despite all attempts to coax them to do so, will not provide any insight or commentary on the deeper significance of their creative process or the finished piece. 

Sacramento, California-based painter Robert Ransom is among the latter. The artist, who has been called “the Andy Warhol of the American pastime” by Chicago Art Institute Curator Mark Pascal, would not waiver from his position that, “Those are just labels people put on my work; they’re not mine.” This, contrary to relentless prompting with words and phrases like “art-deco,” and the “American Dream” that buzz throughout the lofty commentary on his work. 

“Most artists are like that,” he said. “When you get them aside they’ll say, ‘I don’t know why I did that.’ Then the art historians will make up stuff about what it means.”

Such nonchalance can be infuriating when you’re profoundly attracted to an artist’s work—as I am to Ransom’s sleek, stylized snapshots of Hollywood-era Americana. But it’s a reminder that the host of associations a work of art can evoke are our own, and one function of art is to express that which eludes verbal interpretation. Ultimately, it forces our gaze back to the work itself, or toward other people who enjoy meaning-making as much as we do.

Colin Mathews, who represents Ransom at Big Sky’s Creighton Block Gallery, said he was captivated by the artist’s work the first time he laid eyes on a painting of a flame-decorated racecar zooming by a snow-capped mountain backdrop. 

“To see the Wasatch Mountains and the Bonneville Salt Flats squished together in that compressed perspective brought up happy memories of childhood road trips,” said Mathews, who’s familiar with the long stretch of Utah highway between the two regions. “Ransom’s paintings will engender those feelings in lots of viewers—whether it’s a backyard barbecue and palm trees, longhorn steers or trout fishing.”

Ransom would concede to talk basics. His subject matter can be split into two distinct categories that the artist says draw from his Southern California upbringing and the years he spent in the Southwest while earning an MFA at Northern Arizona University in the 1960s.

His Western motifs often feature cowboys on horseback, gunfights, desert-scapes and wide open spaces. One such piece, “Red Man and Woman,” of a couple holding fast and low to the reigns of neck-and-neck horses, will be up for auction July 27 in the Big Sky Art Auction. 

The rest of his work has a distinctly California aesthetic. These pieces are populated with retro diners, motorcycles, dapper golfers and lots of martinis. All of it has a whiff of historic Route 66 running through it, perhaps not surprisingly since the old highway connects the two regions that have been most influential in the artist’s work.

On the surface Ransom’s work may appear deceptively simple. His lines are clean and angular, his figures blocky and often portrayed in profile, and engaged in mundane leisure activities like eating, boating, walking the dog, or having cocktails.

But beneath the almost comically exaggerated figures depicted in quintessentially American scenes, lies an ever-so-subtle narrative that each viewer is left to surmise—or not.

And while the work may have a pop culture aesthetic, which implies mass production, Ransom has adopted the time-consuming oil painting technique of the Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th centuries. He applies the Dutch style of glazing and layering to achieve a lustrous depth of color he found missing in the contemporary art of the 20th century.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Ransom said. “Reaching back to the old masters gave me a means to develop the kind of style I wanted and the direction I wanted to go.”

That direction continues to deliver paintings that are immensely delightful at face value, but that offer as many nuanced layers of depth to probe as one is inclined to find.