|Channing Peake Sketching on Rancho Jabali, 1950s|
Back about 1975, I recall turning on BBC Television while staying in Enniskerry in the Republic of Ireland and being stunned to see Channing Peake sitting on a horse in the oak-covered hills of his Rancho Jabali. He was directing the riders on a roundup, telling each where he or she should go in the process of gathering the cow herd. The first words out of his mouth were something like, "Doad, you ride up that middle ridge and then drop down into the creek and hold up until we get there." I knew Doad Hex, as well. Forty years ago Doad worked on a large ranch four miles from my family's own place. I knew Peake, for we owned a ranch that bordered the Jabali in the large hills to the south. Some of my childhood cowboy heroes, Tom MacDonald and Tex Oliver, for example, also appeared in the group of riders. They were all the real thing, not Hollywood actors, but Santa Barbara County working cowboys and ranchers. The movie was Larry Landsburg's feature film, Cow Dog, filmed on Rancho Jabali in the late 1950's.
Back in the forties and fifties, Channing Peake was a horse and cattle rancher, pretty well seasoned by twenty years of worrying about calf crops, rainfall, and horse and cattle prices, more than enough to make him a respected member of the local ranching community. As a young boy, I first knew him as another local rancher, one whose cattle might occasionally stray through the fence or one who would be telling tall tales and jokes around the branding fire. Some of the best cowboys worked for Peake on the Jabali. Ralph Camarillo, a former Hollister Estate Company cowboy with old Californio blood in him, lived on the ranch. His two sons, Leo and Gerald, who grew up to become world champion team ropers, honed their rodeo skills in the Jabali roping arena. That arena was also a focus point for local cowboys and others from around the state, many of whom spent the weekends team roping for jackpot money. Years later, in the late 1980's, after Peake's life had gone through many dramatic changes, My wife and I roped with him at Pedotti Ranch brandings near Gaviota, and he had solid heading and heeling skills then. I remember Pida Pedotti, who had married Katy Peake's sister, Helen, and had bought a ranch not far from the Jabali, telling me that Channing was an excellent roper.
Rancho Jabali was also the top quarter horse breeding ranch in this part of the state. Peake and his wife, Katy, worked together to create an extraordinary breeding line of these horses. Peake, John Wayne, and others founded the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Association, and Peake actually became the first president, serving several terms. At one time he almost bought Poco Bueno, the foundation sire for the breed, and he raised studs like Driftwood, Speedy Peake, and Wooden Nugget. I recall Walt Mason, a great horseman and cowboy, riding Wooden Nugget in the hills, gathering cattle on him as if he were any other ranch horse, rather than an expensive financial investment. The Peake horses grew up doing ranch work on a working ranch. That is rare today. I remember Walt riding Wooden Nugget at the Peake Ranch dispersal sale at Earl Warren Show grounds in Santa Barbara in the 1960's. Walt Mason worked cattle on Wooden Nugget and spun him like a top. For me, at least, that quarter horse sale felt like the end of an era, an era when the horse and cattle businesses seemed connected, integral parts of one another. Though the original Peake quarter horse bloodlines have been spread thin throughout the nation since the dispersal sale, they have been eternalized in the Duke Sedgwick sculpture in the parking lot at Earl Warren Showgrounds. Sedgwick used the Peake's last great stud horse, Wooden Nugget, as his model. The rider on the horse is Lefty McPeters, a local rancher who ran cattle on the Jabali in later years.
Cattle ranching, quarter horse breeding, team roping with neighbors on Sunday afternoons, dry farming hay and barley, pig hunting-- all of these were parts of the normal cycles of life on the 1,600 acre Rancho Jabali in the nineteen forties and fifties. At that time cattle and dry farming were still the foundation of the local rural economy. Big ranches, like the 32,000 acre Hollister Estate Company, were still in the black and even smaller places, like my parents' ranch and the neighboring Jabali were economically viable. Relatively speaking, the Jabali was not a big ranch, but it was certainly big enough to allow Peake to participate in the local horse and cattle culture in a meaningful, full, and authentic way. In 1939, Peake took a picture of Katy sitting on the rear end of a huge, dead wild boar, lying on its side, weighing maybe 400 pounds. She had killed it with bow and arrow, no mean feat, as any pig hunter will attest. "Jabali" is one of several Spanish words for the feral wild pigs, let loose by Spanish Padres in the Eighteenth Century, that roamed the ranch's many hills and oak groves.
Peake was very much the cattle and horse rancher, and he truly looked the part
-- his short brimmed Stetson, his handsome, rugged face, his cowboy shirt and boots. All his life, even many years after his twenty years at Rancho Jabali were well behind him, I always thought of Channing Peake as an authentic member of the ranching community, rather than as an artist. Back then, ranching culture could take a strong hold on one's imagination. My own grandfather ranched in Arizona for the first two decades of this century; those intense and fulfilling years remained the crucial defining experience for the remaining forty-five years of his life. I suspect the same was true for Peake and his years on the Jabali. Peake later bought a ranch in the Nacimiento area with Pida Pedotti, and they ran some cattle on it, so he did keep his hand in ranching, but in a less direct and personal manner.
As I reflect on Rancho Jabali and Peake's life and career, I suppose that I should not have been all that surprised to see him appearing on the BBC that evening. He was much more than a dyed in the wool rancher, hammered into a somber stoicism by unpredictable rainfall, crop failures, and livestock market cycles. As an art reviewer in San Diego Magazine put it, "[Peake's] manner is relaxed, but under his folksy veneer is a sharp and sophisticated mind." He, his life, and his art were all full of surprises. As many will tell you, Peake was, of course, an extraordinary artist, and was known in the galleries from New York to San Francisco. He studied with artists like Ed Borein and Diego Rivera. After the end of his first marriage and his ranching life at Rancho Jabali, he lived in San Francisco and then, later, Paris. But, throughout all the changes in his life, he had been deeply defined by his years on the ranch. After all, when he met Picasso, Peake gave him a cowboy hat for a present. Years later, he hoped that his children might keep the ranch rather than sell it, and he even talked about moving back and living there again.
The influence of Rancho Jabali on Peake's art is perhaps most prevalent during the forties and fifties when he sometimes used the ranch's quarter horses, local cowboys, farm machinery, and landscape as subjects in his paintings. During this period, his friend, former teacher, and fellow artist, Rico Lebrun, occasionally lived on the Jabali until 1946, commuting occasionally to Los Angeles to train Disney animators working on Bambi. Peake had studied with Lebrun during a three and a half year stay on the east coast, and had also worked with him on a large Works Progress Administration mural in Pennsylvania Station. Howard Warshaw began teaching art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and would also come to the ranch, beginning in the mid-fifties, to work in Peake's studio. During this period, Lebrun and Warshaw, like Peake, began incorporating the ranch's imagery into their work. Warshaw, for example, on his drives to the Jabali, would regularly stop his car by the corrals and make a sketch of one of Peake's Hereford bulls that was kept in a pen. These three southern Californian artists shared galleries at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1957, with Peake and Warshaw both focusing on horses in their work.
In his own one man show at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills, in 1954, Peake exhibited pictures of cowboys, plows, harvesters, and harrows, all reflecting the light and colors of the Santa Ynez Valley and, specifically, the Rancho Jabali landscape. For his show at the Perls Gallery, Peake actually brought a selection of real farm implements from the ranch. One reviewer was grateful for this: "Rancher-artist Peake--even in his most abstract compositions-- has come back to the animal forms, landscape contours and farm implements for his subject matter... The gallery visitor is helped in the discovery of representational subject matter in the abstractions and semi-abstractions by a display of farm tools in the gallery along with the paintings." Peake's rare and impressive talent for integrating ranching and art is best expressed in his own words. In 1952, he wrote, "There has always been for me, in handling the material of my immediate surroundings, the two-fold aspects of observer and participant. Concern for the well-being of this land, the animals, the crops and all of the implements of husbandry has become integrated into my painting, thought, and feeling. There is not a definite line of separation; the continuing processes of painting and ranching overlap and intermingle... By necessity my painting schedule remains flexible to the active demands of ranch life. From the hours of physical activity and contact with the animals, I accept freely impulses for painting, allowing the freshness of impact to direct, often with little conscious awareness of selection or precontemplation." At the core of Peake's perceptions and art is an unmistakable authenticity, the richly embedded knowledge of an insider, an experienced rancher, working through art to discover something true and lasting in familiar materials.
Unlike Peake, Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw were outsiders looking into the world of ranching. Warshaw also had a fascination for horses, and he became an active horseman. I remember playing polo with Howard for a year at the Jackson Estate in Montecito. In fact, I first knew Howard as a passionate polo player, only later learning that he was a renowned artist at the university. We had a great time: we took the game seriously, but at the same time it was all for fun. The field we played on was not a full sized one, perhaps two-thirds the size of a regulation field. It bordered acres of lemon groves, and sometimes one of us, making a fast run at the ball, would suddenly disappear down one of the rows of trees, and all the other players could see was a polo mallet sailing above the lemon trees like a periscope.
Looking at Warshaw's early paintings and drawings of horses, I can see his close observation and deep awareness of horses and his intuitive feeling for how they move. There is one painting of a horse galloping towards the center of the canvas at an oblique angle from the right. The horse is without a head and only part of its neck is represented. Out of where the head should be, the same horse is again seen galloping towards the left. The picture is brilliantly dynamic: as if it were an animation. It shows us a stunning representation of a horse making a 90% turn at a full gallop, a scene no doubt witnessed at Rancho Jabali many times as the cow-smart Peake horses worked cattle in the corrals.
Warshaw's picture, Two Riders, very likely depicts two team ropers waiting for their turn to rope at the Rancho Jabali jackpot ropings. A telling detail is the breast collar on the horse to the right. The roper who catches the head of the steer often uses a breast collar to keep his saddle in place as he must turn sharply, pulling the steer to allow the second roper to make a heel shot. Team roping, now a major rodeo event, began in California where cowboys dallied rather than tied the rope to their saddle horns, and it grew from a weekend sport, in arenas like the one on Rancho Jabali, to a national one.
One of Warshaw's paintings that shows four quarter horses feeding in a corral pen captures an important aspect of the Peake ranch operation. In recent years local horse ranches have become garish display places, resembling Kentucky Bluegrass farms, with electronic exercise machines and miles of gleaming white fence. The Peake's quarter horse operation, one of the most respected in the Pacific region, had none of these irrelevant trappings : It was pretty much a plain, working cattle ranch, one you might drive by on Santa Rosa Road and not even notice, one whose horse operation was based sensibly on content alone, top horses and bloodlines, and not on form, the ostentatious plethora of paddocks and tile-roofed foaling barns you see today throughout the Santa Ynez Valley. Warshaw's painting shows the beautifully shaped quarter horse mares browsing in a plain, unpainted wooden corral also used for the cattle operation.
Warshaw's pictures of horses and cattle capture the huge power of these animals, and he often shows this power as being controlled or contained. There is an etching of a large, powerfully built horse with a rear leg pulled up and tied around the horse's neck, a once common method used to restrain a recalcitrant horse when being broken and trained. Warshaw's pictures of bulls have the sense of a brooding, pent up sexual energy. One of his paintings represents four versions of the same bull in the ranch corral. This picture is organized in four squares, much like a boarded set of ranch corrals, and each square contains a powerful image of the same bull, a dark energy contained in a small space. His Wise Owl and Foolish Bull etching, done in 1958, is clearly one of the Peake's numerous horned Hereford bulls, a breed very popular with local ranches at that time. The head of Warshaw's bull is huge, not even fully contained by the boundaries of the picture. Its eyes are blank, unthinking. There is huge, brute energy here, balanced by the comic, almost smiling owl oddly tucked under one of the bull's huge, hooked horns. Warshaw's picture reminds me of a story of a breeder of purebred horned Hereford cattle across the river from the Peake ranch who provided bulls to local cattlemen. He had raised a large, gentle bull from birth, and it was so tame that he would drive the bull from one field to another on foot. One day, after many years, as he was putting the old bull through a pasture gate, the bull inexplicably turned on him and hooked him deeply under his rib cage with one curved horn, nearly killing him on the spot. He survived, but it was a lesson on the unpredictable violence of these so called "domestic" animals.
Warshaw's other works explore the potential violence of animals. There is a picture of four cattle in a corral pen. They are all facing one way in various defensive postures. The unseen intruder is clearly a person, come to move or work them. The head positions of the cattle are portrayed perfectly, some lowered, some raised, signifying that the normal zone of tolerance between humans and cattle has been breached by the approaching individual. Two more of Warshaw's etchings, Crossing the Terrain and an untitled one, show close up views of a running animal. As in Warshaw's dynamic turning horse picture, there is brilliant and intuitive movement in these images. The perspective is that of looking up at the animal from below and at a slight angle, as if the viewer were lying on the ground.
While Crossing the Terrain seems to be a small calf running, perhaps in the confusion of a spring branding corral with ropers after him, the untitled one is much more ominous: anyone who has been run up a corral fence or a tree by an enraged bull or cow will see this image as the stuff of subsequent recurring nightmares. I was once walking through a pasture and was suddenly charged by my one ton shorthorn bull. I remember growing numb as I watched the bull run at me full speed around a eucalyptus tree. I saved myself by scrambling onto a caterpillar tractor parked nearby by a lima bean farmer; except for that tractor, there would have been no place else to go. The distorted face of Warshaw's running animal, its sheer, enormous bulk, and its speed all combine into a universal representation of pure rage and deep terror.
Another painting shows the side view of a huge, dark bull nearly filling the entire picture. His face is slightly turned towards the viewer, his single eye dark, apparently indifferent, yet also clearly registering the viewer's intrusion into his enclosed and limited space. What gives this picture its grandeur is the legs of many more bulls of equal size visible beyond the bull. The single bull's dark power is multiplied many times over by the other bulls' implied presence on its unseen side. Warshaw's keen eye for cattle, their movement, behavior, and capacity for terror and violence is very impressive.
"I believe," Warshaw has written, " that the paintings and drawings which we call 'Art' are possessed. Possessed by an invisible animating spirit. The trail of dust left by a piece of charcoal as it is made to cross a surface of paper; the cadmium, ground in linseed oil, and spread like butter across Irish linen are the physical media on which an animating spirit operates and through which it makes itself manifest. I believe it is a man's way of seeing, his vision (itself invisible) which reveals itself in a painting by the way it acts on the inert materials." In these few stunning works of art, inspired by his many visits to Rancho Jabali, Warshaw has intuitively gotten beneath the skin of cattle and into the dark simplicities of their unexplored psyches in a way that perhaps no other artist has. It is as if he draws these animals from the inside out.
During this "ranch" period, Rico Lebrun focused largely on farm implements. There is one painting done in blues, grays, and greens: these are the dark colors of a Rancho Jabali winter. The image is of an old wooden harrow, a device made from several rows of evenly spaced four by fours with many large, irregular railroad spikes stuck through them. These spikes were heated up until red hot and then burned through the boards. This home made machine is used by farmers to pull over a field behind a tractor to break down dirt clods in preparation for seeding. Winter crops are usually planted after the early winter rains have germinated the annual grasses; bright, sunlit green hills of the ranch can be barely glimpsed through the upright harrow, which acts like a fence, obscuring the tantalizing, open, natural landscape behind the implement. The harrow's image is dark, and to a non-farmer, it almost looks like a cruel, medieval device of torture, a brutal contraption out of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. Several of the spikes have bright red on them. Lebrun may be exploring an ecological theme: the green world of nature, and man's use of technology to tear the land to his will. A few years later, Lebrun reused this harrow image. The machine is bright red, a color characteristic of some farm implements of the period, such as those manufactured by the McCormick Company. Clearly visible through the spiked bars of the harrow rise the recognizable hills and ridge line of Rancho Jabali's southern and eastern boundaries. The landscape is an angular mixture of greens and yellows, indicating the Californian transition between spring and summer, when the grasses on the south- facing slopes dry out and turn yellow, while the grasses on north-facing slopes can remain green for weeks to come.
Lebrun's Rancho Jabali drawings of this period, focusing on horsemen and farm machinery, demonstrate his enormous talent that Peake had recognized years before. When Peake had been offered the opportunity to study at the Art Students' League in New York and he was trying to decide whether or not to attend the school, he had happened to see several examples of Lebrun's drawings in an exhibition. He immediately said to himself, "I want to study with that man!"
Lebrun's beautifully done drawing of a disk harrow illustrates his deep fascination with farm implements as structure for art. The drawing is wonderfully accurate and detailed, yet it is also graceful and flowing, with the slight shift in angle of the rear axle barely inferring a subtle turning motion. One of Lebrun's horse drawings, in which the rider is holding a rope, is an amazing representation of forward motion as the horse and man move directly towards the viewer at a very fast walk, the legs of both horse and man depicting this complex, rapid movement. In another drawing, in which the rider is also holding a rope, the mounted man appears to be resting while the horse is rubbing its head against the side of one of its front legs. The absence of the horse's head, as the horse rubs it below, lends to the figure the momentary impression of being a centaur out of Greek mythology, an imaginative metamorphosis Lebrun would have observed many times on any Sunday afternoon in the Rancho Jabali roping arena as the local cowboys competed in the jackpot team roping.
Similar metamorphoses are suggested by Lebrun's other work of this period. In one of his paintings, an old, wooden wheeled, horse-drawn red hay cutter is seen from the rear, its front end tilted slightly upwards up to a gray sky filled with white clouds, its round gear box strangely enlarged to lend to the hay cutter the sense of being an ancient chariot of the gods. Whether or not these readings of Lebrun's work are accurate, at least it is fun to play with the notion that Lebrun's restless, European educated imagination worked towards translating the commonplace, daily images of a typical Santa Barbara County ranch into the deeper level, universal archetypes of western civilization. A native of Naples, Italy, Lebrun once wrote about the local yearly miracle when the dried blood of Saint Gennaro mysteriously liquefies: " To be in the midst of this latent explosion was a frightening and awesome experience. When the miracle happened, it was like being inside a clanging bell. This collective and fierce will, convinced that it could change the inert into the alive, has never been to me a lost lesson. The miracle was that dead matter gave way to faith triumphant. Which goes for painting also."
Transforming the commonplace and ordinary into the miraculous and magical is a function of Lebrun's art. A black and white ink sketch of a badly worn harrow, one with unusual curved blades, leaning against a wall, can evolve into a painting in which the upright harrow's dirt-polished, metal blades gleam almost transparently, like a light frost melting against a background of white and dark brown colors. The overall effect appears to be that of bare rib bones seen against the background of a cowhide. The wooden sides of the harrow have nearly disintegrated. Long nails protrude where the side boards have worn away. The harrow, an ordinary piece of barnyard clutter, long beyond any practical use, has been transfigured through art into something of value, even if its original agricultural function is not recognized or understood by the viewer.
Other drawings from the Jabali period demonstrate Lebrun's deep fascination with the axles of the old, wooden-wheeled wagons deteriorating in the ranch barnyards. In fact, one of the better known works of Lebrun's career, Vertical Composition, grew out of his drawings of the axle of an old, wooden wheeled, horse drawn hay cutter. This large casein painting won both the first prize and the Harris Medal in a Chicago art competition. Instead of having the axle resting horizontally on the ground, Lebrun dramatically turns it into an enormous and potent vertical image. Of Vertical Composition one art critic wrote, "Whether it was invited as an abstract or surreal painting, this at once topical and timeless evocation of an axle-- useless with both of its wheels broken, still nobly erect and eloquent of the function of a basic element of civilization before that civilization has begun to destroy itself-- thus attains a high point in modern symbolism." The original wooden axle, already badly deteriorated when Lebrun first sketched it in the nineteen forties, has no doubt long since dissolved and sunken into the alluvium of some canyon on the ranch. Transformed through art, however, Lebrun's Vertical Composition continues to pester not only the eloquent and urbane art critics, searching for more evidence of the decline and fall of the West, but also teases the rest of us towards the discovery of some sort of universal or private value in the powerful and unexpected upright image of that axle. Perhaps it was Lebrun's interest in the theme of the crucifixion, which he explored extensively in paintings and drawings in the late 1940's, which lead him to the vertical representation of the axle.
Though one seldom sees it now, barley was once a common, large scale crop in the Santa Ynez Valley. One of Lebrun's drawings depicts the intricate maze of various exposed gears and pulleys connecting the complex web of belts and chains on the side of a grain combine, a large, usually self-propelled machine used to harvest barley and other grain crops. The Peakes raised some barley, along with hay, to feed their quarter horses. Like Lebrun, Peake saw these wonderfully intricate machines as complex sculptures, and much of Peake's work in this period focuses on the front and side portions of a grain combine. One of his better known paintings represents the front view of a grain combine. In this picture is the large horizontal cylinder called the header, and below it is the long parallel cutting bar made up of many small teeth which cut the standing grain crop while the boards on the revolving header pull the severed grain into the machine. Once inside the combine, the grain is separated from the chaff as it drops through a series of moving screens and is then moved through a large pipe into a bin in the rear of the machine. The chaff is blown out the back of the combine as it moves through the field. The grain is transferred up and out of the bin by means of a pipe containing a large, revolving, screw-like auger and is then poured into waiting trucks. These combines are huge, dynamic and complex, as are Peake's representations of them.
Some of Peake's ink drawings illustrate his fascination with the overall shapes and intricate details of a wide variety of farm implements. One drawing, for instance, explores the facinating complex of interrelated chain and belt pully mechanisms seen on a combine. Another drawing shows an unusual "V" shaped disk implement. While being pulled by a tractor, a man would precariously perch on a springing seat directly above the disk axel. Here he could periodically adjust the depth of the cutting blades by manipulating two large levers, no doubt a precarious and dangerous job. This particular composition is beautifully balanced: all of the lines gracefully converge on the center of the image, the point from which rise the two large, black levers. Studying Peake's drawings closely, one can begin to sense his appreciation of these machines as a form of art.
Two large abstract Peake pictures, almost identical in terms of their geometrical pattern, represent the side view of a grain combine. In each picture, the wheels and pulleys, the "L" shaped pipe used to carry the grain to the bin in the rear of the machine, the grain auger, and other features combine into a colorful mosaic. Some of Peake's ink sketches, like those of Lebrun's, illustrate in great detail Peake's fascination with the shapes and details of these intricate mechanisms. One of Peake's grain combine paintings is done in deep, rich colors under a clear blue sky. Peake often said how he loved the Santa Ynez Valley because of the clarity of its extraordinary light. The blue sky is that of mid-summer, at noon, and the combine shimmers in the still heat. Driving home across the Santa Ynez River south of Buellton one bright blue, July day around noon, I looked west, towards Rancho Jabali, and saw that the high maritime fog that comes in from Surf Beach was still packed up and spilling over the ridges above the ranch. The other picture, the combine with the gray sky and muted colors, is clearly a combine on a foggy morning, its colors muted and subdued. On the Jabali, a heavy morning fog can burn off to bright blue sky in a few minutes, and the contrast of these two stunning paintings illustrate Peake's exploration of the dynamics of the ever changing natural light of the ranch.
These two paintings also demonstrate Peake's idea of the "Biomorphic" image. Peake used this term to explain his theory of universal "life shapes." For example, if one looks at the pictures of the grain combines under a blue and under a gray sky, the combines can easily metamorphose before one's eyes into abstract landscape patterns, complete with a clear horizon line. Another painting, entitled "Farm Implement in Landscape," emphasizes Peake's subtle merging of machine and land: the boundaries between the machine, a very abstract and condensed collage of grain combine features, (the blow back pipe, grain auger, belt wheel, and cutting blades) and brown summer hills are indistinct and overlapping. The natural landscape, farm machine and human activity form an interlocked and integrated whole.
Looking at a much later, very abstract Peake painting, I saw the pulleys and wheels patterns of a grain combine, but I was told by the owner that it was an arrangement of bones. These "biomorphic" patterns, dynamic, archetypal life shapes, keep turning up in Peake's work. In "Grain Combine," a more condensed and minimal abstract study in grays and yellows, Peake has the same grain combine imagery, but this time it is skeletal and collapsing, spreading out over space, like the scattered, bleached bones of a dead cow discovered after the vultures and coyotes have picked them clean. In this strange image, the blow back pipe has become a leg bone and the cutting bar in the lower left is the jaw bone of the dead cow. The inert, lifeless image appears to be slowly sinking into the earth.
Peake's grain combine image is like the ancient Greek sea god, Proteus, ever changing its shapes, concealing and revealing itself in different contexts, an enduring and dynamic biomorphic entity. In a much later painting, the grain combine even metamorphoses into the side view of an airplane. There is another grain combine: this one seems to have been thoroughly minimized, collapsed almost into a dense square, as if it had been compacted by a car crushing device in a wrecking yard. The characteristic blow back pipe sticks up like a periscope out of the top of the center of the image. The large wheel of the front end header is directly below it: The front and back of the combine have both been moved along a single vertical line in the middle of the picture. The brilliant reds, yellows, and blues of the other grain combine paintings leak out at the bottom and the middle; the grays of other pictures border the sides and the top. Here Peak is brilliantly showing us all of his grain combines at once: We do not even have to move our eyes to the left or right or top to bottom. Like the medieval God of Thomas Aquinas, who sees all things in history totu Simu, or simultaneously, Peak has created a potent image in which the front and the back, the beginning and the end, are one and the same. Here time and space, for a moment, condense and finally dissolve.
During this period, Peake also explored the shapes of disk harrows. The disk is used throughout Santa Barbara County to turn under stubble or weeds and prepare a seed bed for fall or spring planting. This implement consists of a series of circular, plate-like blades that rotate on an axle. A typical disk consists of two parallel sets of these axles, and when the tractor starts to pull the unit, it snaps into its cutting pattern. Looked at from above, the two axles then form a "V" so that the circular blades cut into the soil at a sharp angle and turn the surface soil upside down.
In one picture, a still life, the disk is sitting at rest with the two axles of the plow represented as parallel. In the other picture, a far more dynamic representation, a disk is shown in action: the first set of blades is ripping into the soil, pulling up the disturbed soil between the sharp, circular blades, and the second axle is following at a sharp angle. Another disk painting, Farm Machine, stands one axle with the circular blades up on its sides, becoming a vertical image, much as Lebrun did with the wagon axle in Vertical Composition. In his one-man show in Beverly Hills, Peake actually brought in a vertical disk axle to display with the paintings.
Peake's affection for the land of Santa Barbara County and its ranching way of life are best seen his painting, Rancho Jabali in Green. The winter rains have begun, and the Santa Rosa Road is gleaming wet from a recent downpour. The lower hills of the ranch are turning green. The dark, flat bottom land lies fallow and waiting. High brushy hills along the southern ridge line darken with the new moisture. The Peake ranch house and barns shine on the hill. Peake has said of this painting, "[It] was painted following the great rains of last Winter. At the end of each Summer's season in this country there is a kind of tenseness in waiting for the rains which bring the new grass. The eye has become accustomed to the grays, the ochres, and a stillness of the landscape under the still skies. The new, the brilliant greens mean happy ranchers and fat cattle. The hills undulate with the broken light of shifting rain clouds. It's a green world. It's a green picture."
His drawings and etchings of daily ranch life evince Peake's deep affection for Rancho Jabali. The drawing, Cowboy, was modeled by Peak's son, Michael. The figure has just been sharpening a knife on a whetstone, perhaps in preparation for castrating bull calves at a branding.
Demonstrating his surprising stylistic versatility, Peake celebrates wild pig hunting on the Jabali in a painting done in the medieval gothic style. When he first came to Santa Barbara in 1931, Peake worked on the decorative panels in George Steedman's Casa de Herrero in Montecito. Steedman's great love was the Spanish gothic style, and Peake, knowing that pig hunting was the sport of medieval kings, chose this distinctive painting style to illustrate a scene from Rancho Jabali hunts. After one dog has been killed, the other attempts to hold the great boar until the hunters can catch up. One can see the same grim, lean hounds in boar hunting scenes in illustrated medieval manuscripts, such as Gaston Phoebus' Book of the Hunt or Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry.
In Cowboy and Horses one sees the Peake's well-bred quarter horses' muscled chests and rear ends, as a mounted cowboy holds another horse by the halter, a brief, elegant moment captured out of a busy workday. Peake also does something virtually no artist has done before: he explores the shape of a horse sitting down at rest. In one painting, Peake recreates in simple and flowing lines the remarkable elegance of a sitting horse. Peake is probably best known for his many brilliant drawings of fluid, shapely horses. Audrey Hepburn once teased Peake, sending him an autographed photograph with the following inscription: "Dear Chan, One horse you don't know how to paint. Love, Audrey." Picasso gained great respect for Peake when he realized that Peake could draw horses at least as well as he could. Peake once said, "Picasso liked to challenge fellow artists. Since I was able to hold my own with him in drawing horses, he accepted me as an equal." In Cowboys Roping Peake captures assorted branding corral moments of riders waiting to rope or roping. It is not the timed, tense contest roping of the professional rodeo arena, but the more leisurely and elegant roping of the springtime brandings on a ranch when the young calves are worked. The riders and ropers in this pen and ink drawing are loose, open, unselfconscious, and graceful in their movements, consummate ropers in the California tradition, unhurriedly taking their time.
Like the poet William Carlos Williams, Lebrun, Peake and Warshaw explored ways to elevate the ephemeral and even momentary commonplaces of daily life, in this case, California ranch life, into enduring and powerful art. Using farm implements and ranch animals was a strikingly novel idea, one not without risks in the urbane, often highly rarefied, art worlds of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The ranching culture in the Santa Ynez Valley has changed dramatically: Rancho Jabali itself has been broken up into smaller pieces, as have most of the traditional cattle ranches of that era. The largest remaining portion of the ranch has now become the Sanford Winery, a well-known, world-class vineyard. The Yellow Jacket Cafe in Buellton, the old haunt of local ranchers and cowboys in that period, a place famous for fist fights and great food, has disappeared, along with the sassy waitress who could silence even Channing Peake with her terse, dry retorts. Even the Santa Ynez Valley Sales Yard, the economic center of the horse and cattle trade, a place Peake visited with ranch friends and associates, has recently closed its doors.
What happened on Rancho Jabali in the 1940's and 50's was a rare and unique combination of artists and events which is well worth recognizing and celebrating now, half a century later. Three world class artists painted and drew on a 1,600 acre ranch near Buellton, using animals, broken down machinery, and commonplace observations to capture that time and that place in stunningly original contemporary art. William Carlos Williams was one of Channing Peake's favorite poets, and, in considering the works of art Peake, Lebrun, and Warshaw created on Rancho Jabali, celebrating, among many other things, harrows, plows, and harvesters, the very stuff of everyday ranch life, William's brief but famous poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, comes to mind.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In a strictly practical sense, it is true that much depends upon the commonplace animals and machinery of our day-to-day lives. Whether or not we are in direct contact with them, they are essential for us to survive and lead the relatively comfortable lives to which we have all become accustomed. But, in another sense, perhaps William's primary sense, twentieth century art and poetry depend entirely upon the daily stuff of our lives. Williams had only briefly glanced at the wheelbarrow and the white chickens down an alleyway as he walked to his office one rainy day in Patterson, New Jersey: the stuff of life is the stuff of poetry. "Make it new," wrote Ezra Pound, William's colleague in the Modernist Movement. Life must be hammered into artifices of eternity. "Literature," said Pound, " is news that stays news." Picasso, lasting up to the end of the Modernist Movement, would have said the same thing about art. Lebrun and Peake, as well as Williams, would all agree with Howard Warshaw when he wrote, "Drawing is an act of love. A love of what is. It is an abrasive love, forcing vision against the grain of reality in order to feel it more."
A love of what is : a broken, wooden harrow leaning against a barn wall. A complex system of wheels, augers, and pipes on the side of a rusting grain combine. A horned Hereford bull staring suspiciously between corral boards. A red wheelbarrow with white chickens. Forcing vision against the grain of reality : images radically transformed through imagination, not unlike the mystical liquefaction of the dried blood of Saint Gennaro or the awesome regenerative power of California's winter rainstorms. In order to feel it more : the commonplace suddenly made new again, renewed and transfigured into something different, something suddenly rich and strange. Warshaw reminds all of us, both artists and viewers of art, of the simple heart of the matter: "Unless we are willing to transform and to be transformed by what we see, visions will elude us."
|Driftwood, Quarter Horse Stud Acquired by Katie and Channing Peake|