Decoding the Details is a four-part blog series investigating works in the Blanton’s permanent collection. Each post will focus on a single work of art and explore the importance of details that many might not notice at first glance. When we delve into an object’s unassuming elements or look beyond what is immediately apparent, we often discover something unexpected and come away with a greater connection to both the work and the world from which it came.
Sarah Celentano is the fall 2014 PR & Marketing intern at the Blanton. She is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Art History and specializes in the art of the Middle Ages. In the second post for her blog series, she takes a close look at Jerry Bywaters’s Oil Field Girls, on view in the Blanton’s galleries.
Jerry Bywaters’s Oil Field Girls is a work of incredible moral complexity. We see two women standing on the roadside. One wears a black dress that clings to her body. Her black heels, necklace, and the feathered hat covering her blonde hair suggest a life of luxury, but her situation tells us otherwise. Her companion appears more demure, with a bow in her dark hair and wearing a yellow skirt and a belted white blouse. The red of her belt is picked up in the bracelet at her right wrist and her western-style boots. She holds her white hat in her hands, and we notice a suitcase and hatbox at her feet. Upon closer inspection, we see that both women have brightly painted cheeks and lips, and heavily made-up eyes. Their exaggeratedly long legs and tightly fitting clothing give them an imposing presence.
Many scholars believe that the women are meant to be prostitutes. But if this is the case, Bywaters reserves judgment. He presents the women as a fascinating convergence of power, drive, and desperation. In fact, Bywaters himself said that he intended to create a work of “sympathetic caricature.” The women look into the distance in anticipation, waiting for someone, or anyone, to take them away from where they currently are. Once we look at the landscape, we can see why: pulling our gaze down the winding road are white posts and a traffic sign warning us of a curve ahead (perhaps one of many “dangerous curves” depicted here). We move past a sign for Jax beer, the ramshackle Joe’s Garage, and ultimately into burning oil fields where a growing plume of smoke stretches across the sky and behind the women’s heads, acting as a frame.
Some of us may have found ourselves on desolate roads much like the one depicted here. Bywaters in fact developed his idea for this painting while driving through West Texas. Yet, embedded in the recognizable landscape are symbolic elements that infuse the scene with additional meaning: on the left side of the road, hanging on the storefront of Joe’s Garage is a sign that reads “666,” a number often associated with demonic forces. Among discarded tires on the far right side of the painting is an abandoned piece of machinery with “Jesus Saves” scrawled across it, barely visible behind a sign for Hattie’s Hut, a honky-tonk where truckers are invited to enjoy the “dine and dance” on offer.
What are we to make of these contrasting references to heaven and hell? Is Bywaters commenting on the irony of industrialism? How the hellishness of the oil fields coexists with messages of Christian morality? That people eagerly await the Last Judgment as the sky above them burns? What role do the two women have here? Does the stark contrast of their clothing—dark on the left, light on the right—serve as an additional sign of the opposing forces at play? It is interesting that they are looking for travelers headed towards the oil fields—and therefore towards 666—intentionally moving beyond any hope of being saved. They seem to stand at the mouth of hell, waiting for a traveler to take them past salvation to the point of no return. That “Jesus Saves” is so obscured by a honky-tonk sign perhaps suggests that such promises of deliverance are overpowered by a new message of materialism in the wake of the Texas oil boom, illustrated by the billboards that have sprouted along the roadside.
When we delve into the details of Bywaters’s painting, we see that his landscape is as much a character as the two women. The natural world “speaks” in this work, telling us of a land altered by industry and the courage of those who would enter such a place. The two women, giantesses on the West Texas roadside, perhaps symbolize the spirit needed under such new circumstances. In abandoning the gentle comforts of traditional life, where Jesus saves, and choosing to venture into the unknown, where potential encounters with darker forces await, they demonstrate the resilience and sheer nerve required to survive in a transformed world.
Francine Carraro. Jerry Bywaters: A Life in Art. Austin: University of Texas
Jerry Bywaters. Letter to Tammy Fuller Gest. 14 December 1984.
7 thoughts on “Decoding the Details: Oil Field Girls”
Frank O’hara said, the best criticism is description. That is certainly the case here. Thank you for the careful reading of a painting for which I have very fond memories. I spent a great deal of time at The Harry Ransom Center when Bywaters’ painting lived there in the 1980s. Teaching myself art history with the Michener collection and the Gernsheim collection on the 6th floor. Other social realists on hand were George Bellows and Rapheal Soyer. Bywater’s painting stood out because it spoke directly to the west Texas landscape I knew so well. The morality of the scene is as itenerent as the girls but I conjecture that in some way women are a civilizing force on the Wild West even if they are there in a professional capacity. They are pioneers speculating. The Jesus Saves sign has been sent to the back as a position of the past by which the future has moved ahead of it. Where the machine of capitalism is pumping rampant the sign might as well read, Jesus Saves but everybody else spends their check by Saturday.
What’s most important is that Bywaters props the frame open and invites speculation rather than sealing deal with one definitive read. Painting doesn’t write history it seduces a love of it.
Thank you evincing your love of the myriad rather than the singular.
I believe 666 was actually either a brand or type of oil.
Paul English, I have heard that 666 was a brand of cough syrup. I think whoever wrote this interpretation of the picture is overthinking the work.
Excellent analysis, Sarah Celentono
I firmly believe the two women are my mother and her sister. The lady with the brown hair and blue hat looks like my Aunt Pearl and the dark haired girl looks like mother. At the start of WWII, my aunt’s husband was sent to overseas. Mama was single. They took a bus from Talco, Tx to work as welder in the Kaiur Shipyards in California. Mama wore cowboy boots and had played in a Western Swing Band. Both women always tried to be fashionable. Mama died young, but Aunt Pearl was always a fashion hound. Paris, Tx where Jerry Bywaters live is not far from Talco. Mama and my aunt had also lived in Petty, Tx. for a time.
Mama and my Aunt had also lived in Midland, Tx.
Was your aunt of German descent? One of the first things I noticed when first looking at the painting is that the woman in black looked German. If not, then perhaps it is simply the artist’s style. I know central Texas / hill country has German lineage…
I know virtually nothing about art, or how to analyze it, but as a history nerd, I connected “German” and then “oil”, and then wondered when it was painted. 1940. I imagine that the world was a dark place in 1940, as it became clear how oil had fundamentally changed the nature of war, and how most countries in the world were not prepared for such changes. For the people living near oil fields in Texas at the time, little was certain about the future – the only thing that WAS certain was that the oil being pumped from the fields around them was going to fuel a lot of chaos and destruction for the foreseeable future.
In a way, the ominous tone of this photo reminds me of early Spring, 2020. There was a time when the future was dark, and the lives / world we once knew was rapidly fading away. An “in between” time – before we had any grasp of how bad the future may be, and the defining features in our lives were fading into irrelevancy. It’s a strange feeling – especially when all of society is impacted. The only other time I’ve felt it was on 9/11 and the days that followed.
I’m not sure how to best explain it – there are times in our lives when, in a very short period of time, the past and the future feel very far apart. And to me, this painting does a good job at capturing and conveying the mood of such times.