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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

THE TWISTED WEST OF DAN ENGER (UPDATED!)




Author's note: I originally wrote this article about my friend and fine artist Dan Enger about a year ago. I needed to make money some way other than slaving away in a nursing home and Dan seemed to need a little publicity, so there you go. After a year of trying, I cannot get any art magazine to publish this. I'm not a raving egotist, but the writing seems pretty good and there's no question (aside from taste!) whether Dan's art is any good... I guess genuine originality and vision is trumped by the pablum of comfort food every time. In addition, sadly, Enger-Cordova Fine Art Gallery that's mentioned in the text is no longer open for business... another victim of the uniquely American notion that art is a "luxury" that "isn't needed." If you should happen to find yourself sane and need some of Dan's (or Amy Cordova's!) art, let me know and I'll put you in touch asap!
Yours, Chipper

Author's second note: We're working on a better way to show these images (and more of 'em!) intermingled in the text all professional-like, but the Blogger interface is a little weird and for the moment, this is the best we can do... apologies, friends.
Yours, again, Chipper

Author's third note (the update mentioned above): I'm delighted to report that there is now a Dan Enger website where you can see lots of Dan's fine work and read a little more about him... thank goodness! And here it is: Dan Enger's Website!


THE TWISTED WEST OF DAN ENGER
By R.E.C. Chipper Thompson

Some men are known by the clothes they wear, others by the car they drive. A lucky few are known for their works. Taos, New Mexico artist Dan Enger - a very lucky man - is known for all three.

Enger's presence in Taos is the subject of frequent comment, as he is often spotted wheeling down the Paseo Del Norte in his bright yellow 1954 Chevrolet pickup truck, or lounging in the shade of an adobe portale like some shifty, cigarillo-smoking bandito, conchos shining down his pants legs and around his waist, fringe hanging from his shirt, and sombrero brim just hiding his twinkling eyes.


But the best is yet to come for those who seek out this remarkable individual in his natural element: Enger-Cordova Gallery, which he shares with his artist-girlfriend Amy Cordova. Splayed across the walls of the downtown gallery are Apache scouts; renegades from Pancho Villa's army; outlaw bikers; and rough riding, card-playing, six-gun-toting cowboys, and they all have one thing in common - besides being painted by Enger - they're all skeletons. Needless to say, even in a town overflowing with western characters and western art, Enger and his work stand out.

"With everything I do, there's skeletons, and most of them are armed," says Enger, grinning. "I've often thought I've put myself in a box with these skeletons, but they're very freeing. They let me dress them up and put them in all these different situations, and they're not bound by the things we're bound by."

Today Enger laughs easily and often, but his life has sometimes been a struggle to unbind himself from the strict military aspects of his upbringing. Born the same year as his truck - 1954 - in the same hospital where Apache leader Geronimo died, Enger was the son of a U.S. Army field artillery officer, and spent his formative years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, listening to the big guns roar.

"I remember one day when I was six or seven, dad brought me home a little gray arrowhead and a little hide scraper, and that set me off. I love archeology, or what I think archeology is. I like the old archeologists, the guys in the 1920's and 30's who went out in the desert and dug stuff up. That's exciting to me. I don't know what happened, but I was so interested in these prehistoric people. It's in my art and it's a great motivator and it feeds a lot of my art dreams."


Enger's not just blowing cigarillo smoke about this: when he was only twelve years old he found the old post dump site at Fort Sill and immediately started digging up artifacts from the wild west. "It's all dry and dusty, and I was digging up cavalry insignias and bottles that still had the labels on them; letters that soldiers had written and pieces of uniforms with the buttons still on them."


"My dad and I got along famously," Enger continues. "I love old logos from the thirties and forties, I love military insignias, and wings and propellers and all that stuff. I grew up in a house with a lot of antique guns and we'd go shooting original flintlock muskets, and he talked a lot about history and the indians. My dad would go out to these old guys' houses and he'd trade for a buffalo rifle, and these old guys would always have a collection of skulls and arrowheads and stuff. Obviously, my relationship with the skeletal in all of us started early," says Enger.

Enger's latent leanings toward the arts came early in his childhood. "I felt the artistic impulse when I was little," he says. "I just wanted to make things, and I kept pestering my mom. I wanted to paint things and make things out of wood. I remember the first time I drew a picture of a gun I drew it on my mother's coffee table and I pushed so hard on the paper that it etched the drawing into the wood of the table, and it's probably still there." Enger's mother encouraged her children to draw and paint, and Enger says, "She had a very cool approach to art, that art was everywhere. She never considered herself an artist but I've found clothes she made for me when I was little and they're stunning, all hand-stitched with embroidery on them. She was a very creative person but she was very quiet and didn't like a lot of attention."


Enger's artistic training started to take form at the Oklahoma College of Liberal arts in Chicasha, but not in a typical academic way. "The hippie movement came and I just got sucked into that," says Enger. "I have a great affinity for anyone that rebels against any kind of system. All my brothers and sisters are rebels, too. The art and the music just pulled me away and I found I wanted to be one of the hippies and I liked the whole idea. I loved the music, and about this time I discovered the Byrds and New Riders of the Purple Sage, and I couldn't believe that there were these hippie guys making hippie country music... kind of psychedelic stuff.


"I don't know why, but you just know when you hear something: 'Man! I got to listen to this! I'm getting rushes all over me!' You know, I used to go to pow-wows and that drum... I would just start crying. I still love putting musicians and guitars and fiddlers in my work," Enger says. "I like to put a fiddler on a chair with a big old bottle of alcohol, because that played a part in our history as well."


"So we were like cowboy hippies. We wore boots but we all had long hair and drove pickup trucks, and it drove the rednecks insane to see a hippie in an old pickup truck," Enger laughs. "It was a really good time."


Enger never formally finished college, but went straight to work as an illustrator in various jobs around Oklahoma, and eventually found his way back to Fort Sill as a curator at the post museum, designing and building dioramas and displays. "I got my dream job at the museum, which I was real excited about," Enger says. "It's the second-largest army museum in the country, second only to West Point, and the collection is fabulous - a hundred thousand objects. It's an unbelievable collection.


"Reality set in after about thirteen years, I decided I was in my midlife crisis, and I said 'I'm gonna get stuck here forever!' so I quit my job and came out to Taos in 1996," says Enger. "My buddies all told me I was crazy, but I was very frustrated. I like to do things my own way, but the bureaucracy within a museum is very much like an academic setting. To really get out and build exciting exhibits I think is impossible when you have to float them through a curator and then through your boss, and it's nobody's fault - that's the way the system works. It didn't go sour, I went sour.


"When I was in my late 20's and early 30's I had taken a trip with my buddy in college. We drove up to Santa Fe in wintertime and lived like kings on $140.00. We drank whiskey, we ate at the finest restaurants and stayed in motels, and it was a lark. I love the southwest and I love New Mexico. But I found that my resume didn't mean anything on the streets of Taos," Enger chuckles, shaking his head. "So I experienced what everybody experiences here, I went flat broke."


Enger took many jobs in New Mexico to make ends meet. He designed and sculpted a 24-foot-tall bronze horse for an estate back in Oklahoma, but also did more museum work in Las Vegas, New Mexico, was a grant writer for the mountain town of Mora, New Mexico ("If I go to hell, I'll be a grant writer," Enger mumbles) and even worked as a detox councilor for a while. All the while, Enger struggled to make inroads into the Taos art scene.


"I learned that you can sell your work, but you have to have a place to hang it up and get some people to come in. I tried to turn my studio into a little gallery. It had some windows facing the hallway that I blocked off and would hang my work in there. But the only guys who came in there regularly were transients and drunk guys who'd bum cigarettes from me. I thought, ' You know, maybe I should think about opening a real gallery."


Enger had been carefully developing his relationship with Amy Cordova, so the two opened and now share their gallery adjacent to the Historic Taos Inn. It is an atmospheric, artfully dim space that reeks of "Old Taos" and local history, where Enger and Cordova have now been for three years. Enger says "I'm very happy just to be able to have a place to show my work, and to talk to people about my work. It's a lot healthier than just living in your own world.


"I started painting these skeletons when I was up in Mora," Enger says. "I did a series woodblock prints - my first skeleton group - 'cause I could carve the woodblocks and make multiples and they wouldn't cost me any money. I did Pancho VIlla and his mythical girlfriend Adelita. I did a guy I called 'Bandito Del Norte, and I did La Llorona, who is the northern New Mexican lady who walks through the acequias (irrigation ditches) and wails for her children who are gone. And I did an Apache scout as a skeleton. I'm still printing those, and they've been good to me.


"At first I'd get mixed reactions, but I knew the line work was good and the subject matter was good. But I thought '...these are kind of weird....' but I was thinking back to my early days. I've got all that stored up in me and it's all coming out in all my work; the history part, the psychedelia, the cosmos part, the colors, and being here in New Mexico we've got this brilliant sun... I've taken some of those stronger images and morphed them into large canvasses." Enger smiles and says, "I've got lots of ideas now, but honestly, I don't know where some of this stuff is coming from. If I think about it too much I get confused.


"All of our cowboy stuff, in my mind, came from the Mexican cowboys, and I think that's what makes our history here so rich, 'cause you've got a combination. That really turns me on, pants with conchos on them and fringe, guns and knives and beautiful saddles. I always try to make the guns and other accoutrements as historically accurate as I possibly can, maybe with a twist."


The "twist" in Enger's work is "...a little psychedelic reflection or something weird," he says. "Kind of an Escher-type thing where there's a little reflection in this guy's concho that gives you another world, another facet to what would normally just be a flat piece of art. It might just be using a traditional neckerchief color pattern and putting your own designs in, so it has a nineteenth-century feel but you've created a little...." Enger pauses, momentarily transported. "For example, this guy," he says, indicating a wall-sized, sombrero-lidded, cigarette-smoking skull. "His neckerchief has little skulls and crossbones on it. Blame it on Rick Griffin and R. Crumb, and all the San Francisco poster artists..." Enger laughs.


In addition to graphic arts, Enger's experiences as a curator and museum designer have served him well, and the evidence is in the quiet, haunted corners of Enger-Cordova Gallery: Enger's hand-carved shadowboxes of oversized Colt cap-and-ball pistols and accessories, and memento mori of skeletal Dona Sebastiana splayed out in glass-fronted cases like some bizarre semi-holy relic. Enger even designed and carved the bright red, skull-festooned screen door to the gallery!


"I've been very lucky," Enger says today. "But I want to work a little harder and smarter. There's a lot of things I could be doing, and a website is one. I need to quit hiding out, which we kind of do in Taos. Taos is a beautiful place, but it's hard, and it's got an edge to it. This place in 1840-something... there wasn't any law, and that turns me on, looking at it from a distance," Enger clarifies. "I can still live in my little dreamworld that I've created. It's not reality - war is not good, shooting people is not good, but the idea of this romantic, beautiful rough old west that didn't really exist... but in my mind it's a perfect place. Nobody gets killed, nobody gets shot in the chest.


"Like everyone that comes out here, Taos changes you for the better if you hang on, but it ain't easy, and I'm glad it's not. Life isn't easy for anybody. Sometimes in my past I thought I didn't have a voice, I didn't think I could be myself because I couldn't look a certain way. I was the only guy at the museum with long hair! I think Taos is the closest I've been to where you can let it all hang out and not many people are going to say anything. There's a lot of good people here. But if you come here to get attention for yourself you're in the wrong place, 'cause there's always somebody doing something a lot crazier than you're doing!" Enger says. "In Taos you can express yourself and do just about whatever you want. You can really be yourself and it feels good."


A few days after telling his life story for this article, Enger the artist, museum curator, and amateur archeologist was pacing his gallery's parking lot while talking to his brother on the phone. An odd metallic shape in the dirt caught his eye, and after toeing it with his boot he dug it out with his knife. Enger had unearthed the exploded breech of a nineteenth-century Sharps rifle.


"That's how close to the surface history is here. There's magic in archeological artifacts, and Taos is like one giant artifact," says Enger. "I've been studying ancient man forever, and I've been going back through Neanderthal and all these people and the one thing that is so obvious about human beings is how ultra-creative we are. We have to decorate everything, we have to sing songs, and you know - that's our nature.


"I'm a very lucky person to be here," Enger repeats, turning the rusty, time-worn Sharps rifle breech over and over in his expressive hands.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mike said...

Well, there is no accounting for taste, or the lack thereof. As you know I am a fan of your writing so I find no fault with it. The subject is interesting and the description spot on.

warurmonk

7:02 PM  
Blogger Sonny and Son said...

My family had the opportunity to meet Dan in 2006. We fell in love with his art and found him to be such a neat and interesting guy. Over the years we misplaced the information with his name and have been searching for awhile to locate him. I was elated to find your article and sad to read that they no longer had their shop. We have lost something in our country the ability to appreciate originality. Thank you so much for sharing the information. He had sculpted a piece that I loved of a female grim reaper with a bow and arrow, over the years I have forgotten her name but the piece definitely left an impression on me.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Paul Willis said...

A new fan. Love his work.

5:11 PM  

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