I was standing in front of Bud Helbig's painting, "Almost Smell the Coffee," wondering why I felt so betrayed. It's an innocuous painting, a winter scene with one cowboy opening the gate while his mounted companion waits nearby. The bunkhouse in the distance beckons with its promise of warmth. They would go inside, hunker down by the wood stove, swap stories over hot coffee. And leave me out in the cold.
Maybe that was the key. Like most Americans, the Old West in some form is in my very genes. But after studying a dozen of these paintings at the 25th Annual Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, I began to realize that they don't care about the viewer. They don't acknowledge you. They go on about their business in an insulated dream populated by stereotypes, safe from any give-and-take with reality. The critical problem (pun intended) with these paintings and sculptures is nostalgic cowardice. The viewer (whether critic or citizen) dwells in the latter years of the twentieth century; these artworks reflect a false vision of the latter years of the nineteenth. Almost all the 136 pieces erect a slick facade that deflects any common points of contact between viewer and subject. They deny us any kinship we might feel with their idealized range riders, mountain men, Native Americans and settlers. We are locked outside because cowboy artists are afraid.
They are afraid of the present. They are afraid of the past. They are afraid of the future. The first two are easy to see by considering their artworks, and the third by looking at their marketing strategy.
For the cowboy artists, the present time denies or denigrates all the values held up like trophies in their paintings and bronzes: rugged individualism, the agrarian life (less than 2 percent of Americans live that life nowadays), women's traditional roles, Native Americans as noble savages, and, most important, repressed emotions. In fact, biting the emotional bullet accounts for most of the weaknesses in the show. In two of Frank McCarthy's paintings, for example, "In Search of the Hostiles" and "War Trail on the Southern Plains," horsemen in close-up gallop right at the viewer in classic Hollywood fashion. (Except where noted, all artworks are dated 1990.) The scenes are full of flying hooves and flailing leather. But look at their deadpan expressions! They're like passengers on a long train ride across Kansas. You can see these closed expressions on nearly every work. I counted only four pieces that showed anything animated. One is the cutely titled "Saturday Nite Live," by Kenneth Riley, which shows a cowboy teaching an Indian how to dance a jig, while other cowboys sit around the campfire. Another is "Wagh--A Mountain Man Am I!" by Harvey W. Johnson, a ridiculous picture of braggadocio: a mountain man holding a steer skull and a knife, spinning a tall tale, again around a campfire. "The Curly Wolves" by Gary Carter shows two mountain men riding hell-bent down a hill toward a small encampment of tepees, rifles drawn, fierce looks on their faces.
Finally, in the only appropriate display of emotion, we have the painting judged Best Overall of the exhibition, Howard Terpning's "Digging In at Sappa Creek," which depicts Indian women frantically trying to dig rifle pits to defend against an impending cavalry attack. They grimace with fear and with the effort to create some safety with whatever tools they have: rocks, hatchets, sticks, bare hands.
Here I agree with the CAA judges: It is the best piece in the show. It's authentically dramatic, we can identify with its subjects (fear of attack is timeless), and it's painted with skill and dynamic composition. Notice, for example, how the figures create a kind of wave of action rising toward you. Then your eye moves up and back across a range of emotions: from the crouched central woman showing worry, to the woman standing behind her screaming her fear, to the older woman behind her, a look of bitter resignation on her face. It's almost as if Terpning has painted a mental picture of a single figure going through the gamut of actions and feelings in that desperate situation. Unlike the other artworks, "Digging In" is based on a historical incident, one white America should be ashamed of: the systematic and persistent stalking of more than 300 Cherokees over 1,500 miles, and the extermination of most of them.
Which brings me to my second point, that cowboy artists are afraid of the past. Their well-known claims of authenticity extend only to saddles, rifles, insignia, beadwork and other paraphernalia. They lavish attention on these trifles to camouflage the lack of violence that dominates the show. But violence characterizes the Old West. Remember the Colt "Peacemaker?" Remember the "Indian Troubles," the reason for the cavalry in the first place? What about the human pincushions at Custer's Last Stand? What about slaughtering buffalo? Ambushes? Gunfights? Just plain being rowdy? Or were we all just sitting around the campfire, eating beans and having farting contests?
Far from depicting the Old West, the current cowboy artists paint a sanitized dream both they and their collectors can be comfortable with. We can't have wild displays of emotion, like Charles M. Russell's "In Without Knocking" (1906), in which six cowboys charge into a saloon on horseback, guns blazing. We can't have scenes of psychological intensity like Charles Deas' "The Death Struggle," (1845), which shows a cowboy on horseback desperately fighting with an Indian upside-down beside him in midair, flung off the horse, blood everywhere. Instead, any violence in this show is elliptical, implied, ambiguous. Consider "Sacre Le Bleu," a technically brilliant watercolor by David Halbach. Here a lone trader or mountain man, cooking his dinner by a stream, finds himself interrupted by three Indian braves quietly riding around the bend on horseback. His hand tentatively reaches for the nearby trusty rifle. At first glance, the tension created by the situation seems credible, but soon it rings false. If the Indians meant harm, is that how they would announce themselves? Of course not.
In another painting, Kenneth Riley's somewhat pedestrian "The Competition," an Indian draws back his bow; other Indians crouch beside him. But he's aiming way up in the sky, and you realize it's a distance contest: How far can you shoot an arrow, Long Lance? Everywhere, you see guns holstered or aiming at nothing, arrows in quivers, rifles cradled for the most part. In current cowboy art, nobody hurts anybody anymore. The old enemies are just co-existing in a sort of retroactive glasnost. The past ain't what it used to be.
And the future holds more of the same. Cowboy artists fear the future because it might demand change. So they fight a holding action through technique and marketing. For the most part, the humans and animals in these artworks are trotted out as types, interchangeable across paintings. Like corporate logos, they conjure instant recognition and the security created by such identification. Listen, say the cowboy artists, they're safe, they work, they've made us rich, why screw up a good thing? Why indeed? No other time in U.S. history, with the possible exception of the Revolution, has pervaded the American imagination like the Old West. Its types permeate the language, movies, childhood games, and even politics (remember LBJ?). The demand for the genre is ready-made in our minds.
Buying and collecting cowboy art is at an all-time high. Many people who can afford it can hide in this nostalgic version of the old American verities. They hang these paintings like windows (almost all are outdoor scenes) to gaze into a skewed vision of the past. Here they can remember a time they never lived in. Unlike most of us, whose minds inhabit a twentieth-century landscape, these buyers can climb in this hermetically sealed vehicle and zoom off into never-never land. For the cowboy artists, it's a gold mine.
But it's also a rut. And a rut, as an old sodbuster once told me, is just a grave that's open at both ends.
Cowboy Artists of America, 25th Annual Exhibition, will be on display at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central, through Sunday, November 18.
Like corporate logos, the humans and animals in these artworks conjure instant recognition and the security created by such identification.
They hang these paintings like windows, to gaze into a skewed vision of the past.
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The critical problem with cowboy art is nostalgic cowardice.
Look at their deadpan expressions! They're like passengers on a long train ride across Kansas.
Far from depicting the Old West, the current cowboy artists paint a sanitized dream both they and their collectors can be comfortable with.