Western Series

web bull rider

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The cowboy has been portrayed in American culture as a masculine ideal and a symbol of individualism for decades. John Wayne, the Marlboro Man and Clint Eastwood embodied and helped to solidify the cowboy-as-rugged-individualist icon. Like many men of his generation, my father fully internalized the cowboy image. He lived in south Texas during his early adulthood, at which time he became a literal manifestation of it, trading regular shoes for cowboy boots, and a cap for a cowboy hat.  Later, because he wanted a cowboy son to complete the picture, he dressed me in full cowboy regalia. But my preferences leaned toward painting pictures more than riding horses, and, to my father’s disappointment, my cowboy childhood came to an end fairly early. For years, I would try to distance myself not only from all things cowboy, but from all things southern and country; in short, I rejected that which most clearly defined my father, and that which my father so heartily embraced. But the unconscious has a sense of humor, unexpectedly slipping that which we thought we’d cast off back into the spotlight of our psyche when we aren’t looking. Knowing this, it should not have surprised me when I started to create my western series. And yet it did. The series began when I found a 1906 stereograph cowboy image while on my travels through Omaha. Back home in my studio, I enjoyed retrofitting the cowboy in (very un-cowboylike) clothes and colors, until he emerged as something more interesting, quirky and colorful than his iconic self had been. I was hooked. I began looking for other vintage western images to recreate, and before long I had a reworked pop-art bull rider, which I created using cut up articles from Art News and Art Forum, a cowboy wearing Prada sunglasses, and my “Wu Wei” cowboy, a riff on the Asian concept of “flow.” But the series raised some serious questions for me. How was it that our culture’s metaphorical cowboy, and the attendant notion of the independent, self-made individualist who needs no one, wound up creating cracks in the very culture it purported to strengthen? While the cowboy (i.e. ideal man) as self-sufficient individualist is an appealing idea, it is one that inevitably causes more anxiety than comfort, more feelings of isolation than community, more puzzlement and feelings of failure when we are forced to admit—as we always are—that we need other people to survive. And another question: how can I pay homage to American culture, and my personal history, while simultaneously attempting to demystify it? Perhaps the answer lies in recognizing and honoring the cowboy mythology as a part of history whose contribution has been both heroic and tragic. Perhaps it is to see history’s true rugged individualists exactly as they were: not as heroes or mythological figures, but as fallible human beings capable of mistakes and as dependent on one another as we are today. Perhaps if we as a society were to reclaim the “real west” of today—that is, a world that is ethnically diverse, dependent on one another, and very much human, we could, in the process, reclaim the part of ourselves that feels the isolation and pain or those long-ago internalized myths, and set the record straight. It is always tempting to me, in examining both the personal and the universal influences on my work, to bring my ideas to resolution. If I resist this urge, however, what I come to is something more global and at the same time hopefully more personal to others: the recognition that our images of the west have much to tell us about how we live—but only if we will see them as symbols of our culture’s projections, rather than as a literal group of people whose lifestyle we shallowly long to embrace.

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