A few nights ago Jonathan Raney put the last daub of color on a painting that had taken him over two years to finish.
"I always expected that I'd just keep adding to it," Raney says. "Then it hit me: There's nothing else I have to do... It was definitely an emotional moment."
That piece, "The Tsars, Rasputin, and the Clairvoyant Saint," is on view this month as part of a multi-artist show called The Peril of Flux at the Zootown Arts Community Center. It's an exp-ansive narrative dre-amscape created in the confines of a 3-by-5 foot wood panel. It is inspired as much by Freu-dian dream analysis as it is by the visions of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who allegedly prophesied the death of Rasputin and the fall of the Rom-anovs. And its sweeping grandeur is a flurry of immobile theater—a surreal representation of history with a realist style.
"It's a timeline of Russia during that era," Raney says. "I can point out each figure and why he or she is there. Even the structure of the canvas is based on sacred geometry, so it looks very balanced."
For Raney, research has always taken precedence over artistic trends. His scrutiny of the past is prodigious, ranging from Ovid's Metamor-phoses to The Aeneid, from Goya's Los Caprichos to the swirling ornamentation of Art Nouveau poster design. "I read and read and find out exactly what I want to know," he says. "I look at a piece of poetry and think, 'There's a painting, there's another painting.'"
Another of his paintings features a lonely barbershop chair in Bannack, based on the vibrant colors used by Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. It's the first of a series he's doing on Montana ghost towns. It's a warm and meticulous snapshot of abandonment, radically different in every respect from his Russian epic; viewed together, these paintings are a fitting example of Raney's aesthetic range.
Early on, Raney's worldview was one of heavy eclecticism. "I came from a family of extremely religious preachers and gospel singers in Memphis, Tennessee," Raney says. His home-schooled childhood was spent "replicating comic book covers and reading biographies of Michelangelo." When he was 18, Raney started working on a batch of murals throughout the city.
He studied at the Memphis College of Art "and realized that it wasn't for me when they wanted us to do finger-painting. Around that time I was reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and learned more from Homer than I did in college. So I dropped out."
Although his tastes are aligned with classical techniques, Raney says that he is only now discovering the virtues of the contemporary art scene: "It's not that I don't like modern art... but you have to know the tradition of where it came from... Like with Dante's Divine Com-edy, it's best if you've read Virgil first."
At the age of 24, Raney and a few artist friends moved to Bozeman, and Raney continued doing mural projects there until the economy faltered. Then he joined up with the Cottonwood Club, which had been founded by fellow Tenn-ssean artist and writer Dalton Brink. "Our idea was to gather a variety of artists throughout Montana," Raney says. "And just help them... to retain their individual ideals... We're not a collective. We might be a pre-collective. We just enjoy each other's company."
The Peril of Flux features members of the Cottonwood Club. It also marks Raney's first gig as a curator. "We wanted to create a sort of chaotic ambiance," he says. "There won't be any room on the walls when we're done... and we want to engage with every kind of art you can imagine... Moving art. Static art. Audible art. Everything."
"Not to get philosophical or anything," he says, "but the title is about causality and how not everything is predestined. Plus," he adds, his Southern-tinged lilt dropping into a lyrical tone, "The Peril of Flux—it just sounds pretty."
The Peril of Flux exhibit opens with a reception at the ZACC Friday, August 12, from 5:30 to 8:30 PM. Free.