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Meanwhile, back at the museum, Cowboy Artists of America mostly draw blanks

For most people, the appeal of cowboy art is its realism. Yet more intriguing are the efforts that some of the artists have made to move from illustrations to art. Many of the younger artists here don't seem to understand or care about the difference. But old-time illustrators like Kenneth Riley and Howard Terpning do.

Both of these artists spent their first careers in Connecticut, knocking out scenes for stories in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, National Geographic, McCall's, Field and Stream, Reader's Digest, Redbook, True and Cosmopolitan. Terpning did posters for the movies Cleopatra and The Sound of Music. Riley's credits include a series of illustrations for C.S. Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower stories in The Saturday Evening Post.

In his work for publications, Riley was known for historical illustrations--everything from early English history to Revolutionary and Civil War. He was also known--as he is among the cowboys--for his distinctive use of color.

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Both artists have managed to shed the sharp delineations and narrative focus that illustrations demanded of their imagery. As with all cowboy paintings, the nostalgia for lost ways and values is a constant theme. However, Riley and Terpning's paintings have a visual purity and calm that's unusual in the CAA crowd. Remove the CAA-required figures from Terpning's "The Journey" and you have a topnotch landscape. And Riley's soft-edged images suffused with hallucinogenic light have a romantic sweetness that says something about the spiritual difference between painting and illustration. The serious art crowd wouldn't be caught dead paying to see this show. But, if you're searching for the curious distinction between cowboy illustrations and paintings, the works by Riley and Terpning are a good place to start.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

The "33rd Annual Cowboy Artists of America Sale and Exhibition" continues through Sunday, November 22, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central. For more information, call 257-1880.

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