Visual Arts

Standard Brands

Names like "A Puncher's Paradise," "Reluctant Mount," "Last Drop" and "Lickin' Clean" leave little doubt that you're in the company of men who wear chaps. No, this isn't theme night at the local gay bar. This is the Cowboy Artists of America annual bunkhouse of fun at the Phoenix Art Museum.

For anyone searching for the least speck of newness in this art, which upholds the consoling icons and fictions of a spent age, titles like the ones above or "The Squeeze," "Bawlin' and Squallin'" and "The Feel of the Rope" are enough to suggest there just might have been more to life on the range than all the wholesome masculinity, domesticity, cattle ropin' and proddin' depicted in the show's 140 or so paintings, drawings and sculptures.

But rest assured, even if the titles have gotten a little out of hand, the CAA's art remains as fixed as ever in the family- and American-values division of modern realism. Ten years ago, when the annual sale preceded the presidential election by a few weeks, and Bush for President buttons appeared to be part of the required attire on the evening of the CAA sale at PAM, a friend characterized the CAA product as the ultimate in Republican art--an antidote to the modern anthrax of abstraction, and the moral outrages of Mapplethorpe's bullwhips up the fanny and Serrano's "Piss Christ." Which is to say that in the 33 years of the CAA's corporate existence--for 25 of which PAM has hosted the CAA annual sale--nothing has distracted it from its founding goal of perpetuating "the memory and culture of the old West."

Hatched by a fraternity of five in a bar in Sedona, the CAA has evolved into an impressive cartel of 26 artists--all fellers, and all clip-clopping along the artistic trail that Frederic Remington and Charles Russell blazed more than a century ago. The works in the annual sale at PAM follow a few simple rules. No pure landscapes or still lifes are allowed. People and horses are almost required. And they have to be accurately portrayed in the attire of their 19th-century day--though word has it that Western Horseman magazine once rejected illustration submissions from a number of CAA artists because their horse fittings weren't up to snuff. And none of the works can have appeared previously.

If numbers are any measure, the effort to build a market for cowboy images has been a smashing success. The yearly sale at PAM--which expects to clear about $200,000 from this year's sales--draws a thousand collectors from near and far. And they jostle five and six deep to put their names in a hat for the right to purchase favored works.

Prices on paintings and sculptures have jumped over the years from a few grand to a healthy five and six figures. You can't pass through the gallery without overhearing people sucking their teeth about the $260,000 price paid to add Howard Terpning's painting "Offerings to the Little People" to PAM's permanent collection. And why not? Money is one of the few things that everyone understands equally about art.

This year's nearly $2 million in opening-night sales is more than double the first-night's revenues 10 years ago. And with more of the West being plowed into malls and 4Runner dealerships every day, it's safe to predict continued growth in the audience and rise in prices for these nostalgic pictures and sculptures.

Ezra Pound once quipped that "literature is news that stays news." But the art of the CAA is olds that remains olds. It is as anti-modern as any art can be. Not only in its romantic exultation of manly and natural virtues, but also in the kitschy melancholy of its delivery. These works hark back not just to an obsolete West and a way of life, but to an obsolete method of communication. The inflated, pulp-fiction cheesiness of Fred Fellows' "I See by Your Outfit" or David Halbach's painting "Bangles and Beads" and Loren Entz's "Cherry Pie" draws less from Remington and Russell than from magazine illustration styles of the early and middle part of this century.

Made to underscore and enlarge the scenic reality of a reported event or story, the literalness of the drawn and painted pictures that thrived in such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's Weekly, Life, McCalls or Adventure before photography became king stifled the kinds of metaphorical ambiguities and conundrums that this century has prized in the fine arts.

In this age when all the old hierarchies of art have been discounted or deconstructed, it's easy to think that such a distinction is meaningless. But it wasn't meaningless to the likes of Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Bellows and the generations of artists who earned their livelihoods by making pictures for magazines. The tools and craft behind their illustrational and fine-art images were essentially the same. However, they, as other artists did, knew that different rules applied to each.

The primacy of draftsmanship and the use of line and color were essential to both. Yet magazine illustrations were limited by the text or idea they were made to supplement or sell. Facial expressions and bodily gestures or poses had to convey meaning in a glance. So images often amounted to a kind of visual shorthand in which mood dominated feeling. And, unlike paintings, prints or drawings, magazine illustrations lived in that peculiar in-between world that had no tactile surface of any aesthetic consequence. They lacked the actual "touch" of the artist. They were simply reproductions--intended to be read rather than scrutinized and pondered.

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.

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: [email protected]

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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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow