Colors: Past & Present

It is early 1969. The colorful word counter-culture had begun to creep into your consciousness. Your name is Dennis Hopper. You are 33 years old and have a growing acting career. But you haven’t gotten ‘there‘ yet. Stardom is still around a few more corners. Somehow you, fellow actor Peter Fonda, along with writer Terry Southern write a screenplay for a movie about hippies, bikers, pot, and the freedom of the open road. You’ve hounded enough suits or backers to raise about $400,000. A paltry sum by Hollywood standards even then, in 1969, but enough to enable the production to begin with you as the film’s director. The movie is entitled Easy Rider; and becomes a runaway success, both artistically as well as at the box office. It would become the definitive counter-culture road movie.

Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way

40 years later, Steppenwolf’s classic Born to Be Wild, still comes to mind as the anthem of Easy Rider. Powerful music and a powerful film, thank you Mr. Hopper. So Dennis Hopper went from being a rather unconventional actor to being a sought-after, fair-haired, wunderkind. Ka-ching! But success is quite hard to sustain, and Hopper went from being an A-List actor/director to someone whose work and personal life headed downhill. He became someone who might be found at a rehab center during the aftermath following Easy Rider’s release and rise.

Fast forward to 1979 and Hopper resurrects himself and his career. He takes a role of a pot-smoking photo-journalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Was he acting or was he just living his dream? After this, Hopper also directed Out of the Blue which garnered critical acclaim.

As Hopper’s reclamation of both his personal life and his career gathered speed, we too can again fast forward – this time to 1988, when Hopper was given the directorial reins for a controversial film about a pair of cops, one an experienced veteran, and the other, his rookie partner. They patrol the streets of East L.A. Their job – to attempt to keep gang violence under control.

This film was called Colors – the gangs were the Bloods and the Crips, and the colors were red and blue. Robert Duvall played the aging cop,  and the mercurial Sean Penn played the gung-ho rookie. You may recall this memorable story told by Duvall as Hodges to the restless for action Penn, as McGavin:

Bob Hodges: [to his new partner] There’s two bulls standing on top of a mountain. The younger one says to the older one: “Hey pop, let’s say we run down there and fuck one of them cows”. The older one says: “No son. Lets walk down and fuck ‘em all”.

Colorful words, indeed and significant to the story as we later found out. Speaking of colors, and of another well known actor, who worked for many years as an A-Lister without his career reaching the pinnacle of an Oscar winning performance; let’s now look at Paul Newman in The Color of Money.

Yes, we are back to colors again. Newman worked with Tom Cruise in this 1986 Martin Scorcese film about a pool hustler and his protege. Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson had last been seen on screen in the 1961 classic movie, The Hustler.

If you want to use the term sequel, you wouldn’t be all wrong. But 25 years did pass before any one could buy a ticket for this so-called sequel. Newman had been nominated for an Oscar in 1962 for his role in The Hustler, but he didn’t win that year. Nor did he win for any of his other noteworthy screen roles. But he did win for The Color of Money.

So we have a few common threads here. Movies, about color(s), with the word Color(s) in the title, and with longtime film actors getting some substantial attention for their work many years into their careers. If not quite the stuff that makes for miracles, then at least we can say that they were heading in the right direction.

Shifting gears but not really changing direction, let’s now look at a pair of artists. These two artists, Jeff Ham (above) and John Nieto (below), are known for the distinctive use of bold colors. But that’s kind of a very mild understatement as you can see by examining their artwork.

Ham has stated that he loves to paint animals, people, and landscapes. He’s not concerned about backgrounds or settings, and his chief goal is to impact the viewer by making everything he paints into an iconic image by his use of raw, bright, and explosive colors. We will start out with a look at some his dynamic animal portraits.

Coyote (l) and Laughing Coyote (r) by Jeff Ham

Ham has said, “I do my best to translate emotion and feelings into color and communicate my individual interpretation of each subject. My goal is to capture spontaneity.As an artist I am learning to express myself in an honest and straightforward manner.”

Bob Dylan (l) and John Lennon (r) by Jeff Ham

Willie Nelson (l) and The Stones (r) by Jeff Ham

Note how Ham uses his striking colors in gradients or as abstractions which propel the model or subjects to the fore. Also note how the raw reds impact you.

Blue Wolf (l) and Powerful Medicine (r) by John Nieto

Nieto’s work is similar in his subjects and his use of striking colors. But Nieto’s works are far more linear Rather than merge or grade his colors, he prefers the clear division which creates a different style but with no less of an impact. But he has not completely gone away from gradients and/or the slow merging of his colors. Its just not his first choice.

Jerry Garcia (l) and Albert Einstein (r) by John Nieto

His works have been called dramatic compositions, which through the use of broad strokes and brilliant colors with a halo of a contrasting color surrounding his subjects – have made for unmistakeably modern images.

Nieto has said, “…if I am painting a person,  I am painting much more than that. My art is the result of an emotional involvement with my subject matter rather than a cerebral one. I’m in a trance when I paint. It’s like being a drummer — you don’t look at the drums, you just know intuitively where they are.”

His works are truly great, but to get a true measure of the man, I must relate one more thing about Nieto which will tie together this article. In 2002, John Nieto suffered a massive stroke. He was nearly comatose for two and half years. In July of 2005, he was admitted to a Dallas, Texas hospital for congestive heart failure.

Navajo (l) and Prayer for the Return of Buffalo (r) by John Nieto

The treatment of his heart failure also helped to bring about a miraculous recovery which also cured all of his stroke symptoms. Literally, within days, John Nieto was painting again. Some of the works on this page are from after his recovery. His journey from death’s doorway to his current place in the world of Art is indeed a miracle, or at least is a legend for the ages, as is his art.

So Newman, who passed away last fall,  and Hopper, who more recently has left this earth, both leave us with memories of their fine moments on film. Whereas Ham and Nieto – like Newman and Hopper did in their past,  have color in their stories. We don’t really need to differentiate between the past and the present, do we? Since none of us live in a world restricted to simple blacks and whites, I am more than happy to share these marvelous stories and remarkably colorful images with you.