In the photo, a stock-still figure lies belly-up on the railroad tracks in Basel, Switzerland. Is he an unlucky stiff who's fallen in harm's way, or a lucky stiff about to escape? The only clue is the accompanying note: "Happy Easter, or whatever God Jesus Robot you worship."
This isn't meant as sacrilege. For Mark Palen, the Stiff Man series — in which the artist plants himself, rigid as a board, in front of the camera lens to make statements subtle or surreal — is equal parts art and autobiography. Like other phases of his work, which include abstract animals, a searing oil image of quake-stricken Port-au-Prince and a slightly psychedelic Ryman dominating a tilted Nashville skyline, it's a chapter in the history of a man who proclaims, "Painting for a living is like Whac-a-Mole with taxes."
On this day, instead of hoping not to get clobbered with a rubber mallet, the artist stubs his Marlboro Red outside Brown's Diner and goes inside, plopping on a stool for "a little Sneaky Pete," a frosty Bud pulled from the tap by barkeep Terry Young.
"Brown's is pretty much my headquarters when I'm in Nashville," says Palen, who left long ago to begin his expat life in Switzerland. The former Nashville railroad executive has returned to host a showcase of his life's artwork, Palen 50@50 — It's a Colorful Life, this weekend at The Rutledge.
"I came here [from Memphis] in 1988 with CSX as 'biz man,' " recalls the artist, the 50-year-old son of a transportation industry lion. "I had the suit on, the tie on." His transfer to Nashville allowed him to run full-tilt toward a creative community populated by guys like Music City guru Cowboy Jack Clement. "I turned Jack on to Elvis Costello," Palen says.
Costello is a pal from Palen's pre-railroad existence, when he toiled as a window-dresser and freelance artist in New York City. Palen left that life to follow his pop's corporate pathway. It didn't stick.
"I took off the suit in 1992," Palen says. "I cashed in my 401k and focused on painting and I got lucky. It didn't take very long. I jumped in and didn't look back.
"I did my first show in 1993 here in Nashville. There are Palen people out there. Some are loaning stuff to this show."
In his suits-be-damned wardrobe of denim shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops, he blends with first-name ease into the Brown's crowd, who swap opinions on hockey and bin Laden's takedown. Over the hubbub, Palen describes what he's accomplished artistically since he jumped the corporate railroad tracks.
The Stiff Man photos won't be in the Rutledge show, alas. Instead, he brought bright oils of whimsy, majesty and tragedy — from a platypus dominatrix and Hudson River School-styled Swiss landscapes to a bold interpretation of post-tsunami Sendai, Japan.
"My camera is right here," he says, tapping finger to temple after unrolling the Port-au-Prince earthquake painting. "I was in my studio and this was on CNN.
"But I was here," he adds, nodding toward a painting of the volcano in Montserrat. "I love the Caribbean. I had to get there. Get close."
Too close, he admits, displaying a golfball-sized burn scar on his foot. While shooting the photo that would feed his painting, he took one step too many toward the molten flow. He quickly retreated, but, "It melted my shoe. Hurt like hell."
His eyes light when he talks about the Rutledge show, which opened May 18 and builds to a full-scale closing celebration 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday. He brought in a Swiss record-spinner, DJ Animal. His pal Gregg Brown set up all the entertainment, from techno DJs to a rockabilly band.
"There'll be all kinds of music people and friends," Palen says. "Lawyers, guns and money, man." Another Bud slides his way, and Palen takes a lingering sip and smiles. "I just thought, wouldn't it be cool to get the different styles and grooves of 50 of my pieces from different eras together under one roof for my 50th birthday?"
When the show's done, he'll roll up whatever canvases don't sell and climb aboard a flight to his home and life in Basel.
"I first went over there in the '90s and got snakebit by it," he says. "I'd come back to Nashville, but Switzerland kept pulling me back."
He finally chose to live where he can drink coffee and stare at the Alps each morning, and where his wife, Elisha, exactly half his age, awaits his return. "I miss her," he admits, with momentary melancholy. "She's ready for me to come home."
He has a reason, besides his art show, for spending this month in Nashville. His 12-year-old son from a previous marriage, Jack, lives here. But Palen jerks the topic back to his life story as told by 50 pieces of artwork.
"My problem will be getting it down to 50 pieces," he says. "Heck, I may have 63. No one will be counting. It's my circus."
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