The Emperor of the Red Wheel Barrow

Essay by Alexandra Fuller

ALEXANDRA FULLER, award winning author of three non-fiction books including “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,” and writer and critic for such publications as The New Yorker Magazine, National Geographic, and The New York Times Book Review, presents her essay “The Emperor of the Red Wheel Barrow” about Mike Piggott’s latest paintings.  Fuller’s beautifully written essay will provide a wonderful opportunity for the viewer to penetrate deeper into the enigmatic mind and work of artist Mike Piggott.


It’s not enough to say simply, “See for yourself,” when it comes to artist Mike Piggott’s latest show, but it should be. Forced to go further, I find myself reflexively borrowing the thoughts of two American poets of the first half of the last century, both associated with modernism, both grounded in the real world. William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/barrow glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/chickens.” And then there is the equally familiar Wallace Stevens pronouncing, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” So it is with Piggott whose modernist leanings never lose touch with their roots in the earth. He is absorbed with the passive remove of things, the miraculous juxtaposition of the “red wheel barrow glazed with rain...beside the white chickens,” if you like. But he is just as absorbed by the transience of things, the moment before ice cream melts. And his works aches with compassion for anyone paying enough attention to feel the world as acutely as he does.

People in Snow, 2013

People in Snow, 2013

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since Williams and Stevens pared language down and wrote of a wheel barrow and ice cream. Much of that water has been taken on board. We are confronted with an imperiled planet, a chaotic climate, the unleashed chaos of an industrial/military complex gone awry. But to suggest that Piggott’s paintings speaks to all of these things is to risk a gentle reprimand from the artist.

“The only way a painting has to make sense,” Piggott told me, “is in and of itself.” He is right, of course, and it makes writing about his painting as difficult and as impractical as, say, dancing about it (dancing about Piggott’s work would, I am afraid, involve extreme yoga, if not wings, and is therefore far beyond the scope of my repertoire). So perhaps the first way to make sense of Piggott’s work, within the clumsy clogs of words, is to make sense of the way Piggott’s physical place has influenced him, because land is indubitably essential to Piggott.

“I think best outside,” he said, when I requested an interview.So we went outside which, for Piggott, translated to an exultant two or three hour hike in the Big Hole mountains with his three dogs. “There’s nothing I like better,” he said, “than to walk for a couple of hours, make a fire, cook a sausage, and then to walk for a couple of hours more.” We had forgotten sausages, so we made do with water and views and landscape. Nothing escaped Piggott’s attention; frozen water in a cattle trough, old bear and mountain lion scratches on aspen, the accident of white snow against grey rock, a pall of pollution across the valley floor below us. Piggott fell into place.

Without soil and grit, an artist is without flesh. Think of Gerhard Richter’s dependence on the tension created by the deconstruction of Europe’s long Cold War. Think of Jean-Michel Basquit’s addiction to the slummy debauchery of lower Manhattan in the 1970s and early 1980s. Think too of the way in which an artist gets hung up on the minutiae of time and place. It is impossible to detach Piggott from his adopted home. For Piggott, this is a deliberate passion for a place not his own, a helpless surrender to land. When he told me that he was going out to get a duck for tomorrow night’s dinner, the journey did not involve a trip to the grocery store, but rather a long, cold walk in the willow bottom with a gun over his shoulder. This explained to me better than anything else could the emotional respect Piggott has for a landscape over which he has already demonstrated intellectual mastery.It’s the simplest, earthiest moments that reflect Piggott’s love of the moment – the glass of water (Glass of Water, 2008), an open book (Open Book (Richter), 2008) which is, incidentally, a direct nod over to Richter.

Since the early-nineteen nineties, Piggott has lived with his wife in a valley on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Surpassingly beautiful, it is also land in the throes of change. The influence of fur trappers and early settlers are fresh enough to have left the ghostly impression of wagon wheels on the farmland that surrounds Piggott’s rural studio. But the farmland itself – having usurped the native Indian hunters, the French trappers, and the early ranchers, is itself in the process of a radical, possibly irreparable shift from the earthy production of meat and potatoes to an unseemly haste of ex-urban sprawl. This tension – the transience of everything – is at the heart of all Piggott’s paintings.

Consider the vanishing heat of a day on the beach in his A Day on the Beach, 2008; the momentary beauty of a slab of butter in Butter on Blue Plate, 2008; the transitory supremacy of football players in Game, 2008 And yet, everyday, rural contact with a great deal of manure, unimpressed moose and runaway farm equipment has knocked anything pretentious out of Piggott’s painting. So with Piggott, it is all as complicated as soul, and at the same time, it is entirely and simply about the thing at hand.

This seemingly contradictory state is only possible because Piggott does not think to protect himself from his world with the usual armory of knowledge (“This is simply butter, like a million pieces of butter that have come before”) or with the superiority of cynicism (“Football players can’t see their own clay feet,” “Sun-bathers are frivolous.”) In fact, there is nothing that Piggott can’t or won’t experience as if through the eyes of a person who suffers from – or is gifted with – a constantly erased memory. The shock of beauty, the mystery of first contact infuses all his work as does the fresh realization that everything is in the process of dying. “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you ever saw,” Piggott asks of the water trough, the view from the top of the mountain, snow against black pine bark. He asks it of his mutts.

Vitally of their time, his paintings celebrate the sufficiency of simplicity (the sumptuous palate of Kleenex in Tissue Box, 2008), the complex beauty of the everyday, the redemptive quality of austerity. “I am not political so much as I have been paying attention to unfortunate events,” Piggott told me. But his attention is expressed always, always, in the sheer tranquil beauty of his vision. That is the rare, essence of Piggott’s art.

Art,” wrote Saul Bellow, “has something to do with achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterized prayer too, and the eye of the storm... an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.

That arrested attention, the stillness at the eye of the storm, is utterly Piggott. Even if the world he paints is breaking, or broken, Piggott finds and holds us in the beauty of the fault lines. In this, although Piggott is undeniably his own artist, he most resembles Georgio Morandi. And, as in Morandi, the shape and color of objects are every bit as important as their use. I found Piggott, after our walk, at the stainless steel counter in his Idaho kitchen cutting up a small cardboard box and arranging the pieces in various patterns, obsessively making art out of color, form and the contrast of textures while the kettle boiled for tea. His dogs were a tide of restlessness at his feet and his son, just home from school, was tumbling with the world outside. Piggott conversed, engaged, made tea and continued to arrange his art. He as the emperor of the red wheel barrow.

In a perfect world, everyone would be able to observe Piggott’s work as I have – in private viewings in his studio, or (gloriously) on the walls of private houses. His is a work that rewards quiet contemplation. They grow on the soul until the world around the viewer becomes changed by the experience (I challenge you to get lost in Piggott’s art and then see butter in the ordinary way, or ignore the shape of trees, or remain unmoved by the thumbprint of a plough on a field). In that way, his smaller pieces are just as impressive and powerful as his large canvases. I have watched Piggott’s art (like a hungry hawk) for more than a decade and have picked up the pieces I can afford and coveted those that fall beyond my reach. Collectors and followers of his work will be, as I was, thrilled then to see something entirely new coming into his work – the birds.

The birds – two large canvasses – are my favorite work in this show. They are not so much a departure for the artist (Piggott aficionados will realize) as they are a victorious arrival, a culmination of what he has been saying in bits and pieces all along elsewhere. An oblique reproach on greed, a subversive nod to loss of habitat, a plea for restraint, a commentary on beauty Ten Chickadees shows ten chickadees unsettled on a receding, silver forest of aspen. At first glance, this is simply a gorgeous work, haiku in its restraint and complexity. And Piggott’s calling cards are scattered all over it – the water-color impression of the oil-painted trees, the objectification of the birds, the obsession with transience. Sit longer and the viewer notices a sophistication in the subtlety of the narrative – this is something new and truly breath-taking.The chickadees are unable to perch, their legs can’t reach branches because in some cases their legs don’t exist, and in all cases, the forest is out of reach. There is no resolution in the painting. Feel it at first glance, or days after the painting has receded from immediate thought, it will come to you: We are the resolution. Not for the first time, but as brilliantly as he has ever done, Piggott has gently walked us into his compassionate anguish. It’s a beautiful place to rest but it’s an even better place to consider how we – you and me – must be, as Gandhi admonished, “the change we wish to see.”