Phoenix Art Museum...Cowboys and Indians (1994) Phoenix, Arizona



 The problem with the recent exhibition of paintings and sculpture by cowboy artists at the Phoenix Art Museum is not the subject matter but the insignificance of the aesthetics and content.


 The work, in general, is executed routinely, superficially, sentimentally, academically and illustrationally. It is fundamentally derivative and cliched, aimed at a particular market whose buyers know little about genuine art.


 These artists, by and large, seek to attract their audience with detail, sentiment, anecdote, picturesque subject matter and nostalgia. There is little probing of profound human, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, philosophical or aesthetic issues.


 No matter who lives or dies in the world, what regimes rise and fall, who is crucified and resurrected, what great paintings, novels, symphonies and poetry have been created reflecting timeless human needs, aspirations and concerns, little of it will be reflected in these works.


 It's as if the 20th Century never happened...and much of the avant-garde 19th, for that matter...or much before that. Stylistically, French Impressionism has percolated through California Impressionism and various illustrational academic precepts, diluting previous vigor to formula. Instead, we seem to witness a Victorian era American sensibility where anecdotal illustration and sentimentality reign.


 If the heyday of the cowboy and Indian passed with the advent of the 20th Century, their symbolic power and hold on the national -- and international -- psyche is undiminished.


 Cowboys and Indians represent many things to urbanized, mechanized man, including the primal reality and truth of life lived at an elemental level in nature; foundational conflict between differing conceptions of life and civilization; the destruction of an indigenous race by a foreign intruder and subsequent outrage and guilt in their descendants. Woven throughout these factual and symbolic concepts is the nostalgic illusion of the "good old days" when life was "simpler" and "men were men and women were women"...etc, etc.


 As important as nostalgia is as a coping device in human life to ease present pain and difficulty, it may not be among the most profound of human emotions or mental states, on which to construct a meaningful art. It is much more important that nostalgia, if nostalgia be the issue, combine with significant painting values to produce significant art.


 Cowboy art, generally, presents a contemporary, romanticized view of the past reality of tough, under-paid, transient workmen on horseback, controlled by determined ranch owners. Harshness, ignorance, cruelty and limitation, as well as bravery and endurance were realities of this difficult Western life, the way child labor and slavery were negative realities of the Eastern industrial states and plantation South. Unlike the more settled East, the West, of necessity, emphasized a pragmatic physical existence without much chance for creativity in the arts. Too much dreaming and pondering by a cowboy or an Indian, or a miner, scout, trapper, soldier, for that matter, could cost their lives.


 The beauty of nature and the "wide open spaces" was no doubt appreciated by the more poetic among both cowboys and Indians, as nature is loved by many ranchers and farmers today. But it was a far cry from the nature most of us encounter in our time. It was incredibly dangerous: weather, terrain, insects, animals, accident and enemies. Nature fought back, unlike the sterilized entity we visit with the kids in our RVs, then return to watch our vide-taped vacation in air-conditioned homes.


 The harshness of frontier life, the premature aging of men and women, and early death, is a reality denied in most cowboy and Indian painting. Amazingly enough, there is little or no suggestion in the exhibition that the White Man and Indian ever fought to the death in America. They seem to live separate existences. There are paintings of Indians, there are paintings of Whites. With the exception of a work by Howard Terpning, it's as if the two cultures never intersected (and in this painting, a generally benign relationship is implied, except for the smouldering expressions of the Indians). Any struggle depicted has the romanticized entertainment, excitement value of Western movies.


 If the cowboy artists were able, in the first place, to paint significantly, freshly and well, and then were able to say something important and meaningful about that past life, independent of anecdotal and aesthetic cliches, sentimentality and current, politically correct thinking; or, if the artists were able to say something uniquely original about the cowboy and Indian that significantly rediscovered their meaning for contemporary humanity, perhaps putting a new, more profound slant on them, then they would be making a contribution to art, culture and civilization.


 As it is, cowboy and Indian painting is essentially a commercial, not an artistic, process. Commerce is important, but when genuine art is no longer an issue, and artistic and human values are weakened, then the entire art process is reduced to the level of unpleasant materialism and aesthetic ignorance. And the question must be asked. Do Indians really enjoy seeing themselves exploited, sweetened and sentimentalized into picturesqueness? Do cowboys, for that matter?


 While they would seem to be total opposites, cowboy and Indian art, as currently practiced, is the exact equivalent of the abstract, pseudo-avant-garde with its many dehumanizing manifestations. Beneath surface differences of style and subject, both have a fundamental artifice, an art and culture-diluting mediocrity and meaninglessness.


 If at any time in our lives we needed significance, genuineness and truth in art and life, we need them now. How sad that we must continue to fight our way through the maze of contemporary mediocrity to try to find art with standards.



 And, a review of some of the work...


 Howard Terpning's "Horses, Mules and Men" is the best painting in the exhibition. Four riders, two white men, two Indians, are grouped in the center with great attention paid to the building up of paint to express the substance of the forms. The color is also developed to a high level of richness. This painting has an integrity that is lacking in much of the other work in the show.


 Two sculptures stand out. Herb Mignery's "Silent Leather" depicts a relaxed, slouching cowboy quietly sitting his horse. It has a nice massing of simply-stated form combined with just the right amount of detail. This piece also has integrity and a quiet dignity and worth. It differs from the majority of works that strive too hard for dramatic effect.


 E. "Bud" Helbig's "Tire Trouble," a rodeo clown trying to use a large tire to escape a charging Brahma bull, has a directly stated vigor and an almost 19th century folk art quality in its simple but character-filled, accurately expressive form and unique gray-blue, gray-red color. This is a very good sculpture.


 The rest of them aren't so good. There is no question that the sculptors are technically competent, perhaps more so overall than the painters, but they use their skills toward inferior ends. Technique in the service of emptiness and the cliche is no service at all.


 Aside from the many struggling horses and cows -- sound and fury, signifying, sad to say, not much of anything -- there is widespread prettifying and sentimentalizing of the subjects,


 What can be said about the sculpture of the feminist cowperson, sufficiently erect in posture to express her independence, and sufficiently buxom in tight blouse and Levi's to attract those interested in other aspects of western art?


 Then there's the similarly built, sweet young pioneer girl holding her bonnet in one hand while raising her skirt modestly to the knee as if to bathe in or cross a stream. She displays just enough lithe flesh to put us in the proper frame of mind. A little cat lying on its back playing under her skirt, pawing at the hem, is also an aid to our insights with its cuteness and Freudian import. This was the first prize winner, by the way.


 One painting illustrating, literally, Freud, cuteness and sentimentality, has an angelic little girl dressed in white, like a Victorian Alice in Wonderland, dancing on the straw-covered floor of a barn or tack room for a beefy, grinning, accordion-playing cowboy.


 This sentimentalizing of subject, color and paint application in too many pictures may cause the gag reflex to kick in. Indian mothers and children, families in picturesque costume, decorative background color applied in characteristic patches of mottled pinks, blues, greens, violets, and ochres carry the Western academic conventions of life and art to the brink of aesthetic nightmare.




Copyright by Don Gray



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