The Western art market is small but thriving, and cast with diverse artists who are working to renew the generic themes of the imagery of the Old West.
Michael Pearce /MutualArt
The legendary drama of the Old West lives on in the hearts of Americans who form the cowboy bourgeoisie, living in lovely ranch homes that reflect their lives in the fabled lands that stretch from the rolling hill country of Texas to the pine forests of Oregon, from the spectacular mountain ranges and fertile valleys of Idaho to the scrub desert of golden California. Theirs is a world of horses, of cattle and the land, tough men and women determined and resolute in the face of frontier danger, of a vital and atavistic American dream. The Western life is far from a myth for these descendants of pioneers, it’s their family history, their homesteading heritage, and it is not to be treated lightly. Centuries ago, the wheels of their great-grandparents’ wagons shaped the roads Americans drive on today. After generations of untiring labor, these indomitable people are prospering, and they are enthusiastic collectors of the art that tells their stories.
Such stories may be criticized for romanticizing a violent colonial past, and for turning the cruelties of history into a nostalgic pleasure, in which sad but superficial tears are shed for the fate of the native peoples who were eradicated as the price of Western expansion. Nevertheless, these descendants of the men and women with the grit to scratch settler homesteads from the captured wilderness are proud of their roots.
Despite the myopic views of 20th-century critics who scorned the simple pleasures of sentiment, there’s nothing especially wrong with indulging in nostalgia. Pleasure and self-affirmation are wrapped up in the revival of our memories through art, which may recall powerful recollections of our past, and these memories are both good for us and necessary for us, for without reflecting upon the past how are we prepared to live in the present or to plan thoughtfully for the future? Although the Western art market is small, it is thriving, and cast with diverse artists who are working to renew the generic themes of the imagery of the Old West to reveal a bigger narrative than stereotypical and traditional tales of cowboys and Indians.
And there are different kinds of nostalgia evident in contemporary Western painting. A Chinese immigrant to California, the painter Z.S. Liang avoids superficiality by paying intense attention to detail — researching his native American subjects with the care of a thorough historian, so enamored of his subject that his studio wall is loaded with native American paraphernalia for reference. His paintings bring past events to life with complete conviction. Connoisseurs appreciate this precise and accurate species of nostalgia, and Liang has been rewarded with a steady stream of impressive sales which sustain his comfortable life in Ventura County. He acknowledges his debt to his native subjects who model for him with great respect and admiration, and they recognize his efforts to treat them with honest appreciation, welcoming him to their homes and tribal events. His artistic debt is owed to traditional Western painters like Maynard Dixon, or Joseph Sharp, whose work has performed exceptionally well in the secondary sales market. Working with conservative and definitive style, Liang is likely to be solidly reliable as a long-term investment.
Gabe Leonard paints exciting, dynamic action images of dueling cowboy fighters so caught up in the intense violence of their actions that their bodies are bent backwards like spread-eagled Neo ducking and dodging in the super-slowed bullet-time of the Matrix. Guns, guns, guns. Wiry men with huge blazing guns clutched in enlarged fists. They conjure memories of pulp fiction covers of stories about black-hatted outlaws and white-hatted sheriffs battling in the dusty windswept streets of the Old West, and of old action comic magazines full of scenes inked in frames of violent drama, and stills from gripping old movies like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and “The Magnificent Seven.” Leonard challenges the cowboy themes of tough guys rescuing damsels in distress by painting tight-shirted and strong-willed women shooting it out in saloon bars with equal violence and aggression to the men.
Paintings often benefit from being slowly absorbed and contemplated — but Leonard’s are experienced fast. Our sensual pleasure in the experience of his broad strokes of quick paint, in his simple but dramatic compositions, and in the drama of his life-and-death subjects is over almost as quickly as the action scenes in the movies to which they are indebted. They resemble pictures pulled from storyboards, and it is surely for this reason that they have been collected by Hollywood illuminati Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and Charlie Sheen (Machete Kills), who all share a crude talent for finding beauty and sensuality within gratuitous violence. While exciting and dramatic, this is a narrative of blood, which is more about movies than about reality, which makes no attempt to dig into the more thoughtful strata of glorious and tragic truths about the Wild West. Leonard’s is a filmic fantasia, a flickering nostalgia for a fictional West mined for escapist stimulation.
Thomas Blackshear transforms the Western art narrative by painting the black cowboys who have been almost entirely absent from the mythology. Leonard paints black gunfighters, too, but they are as caricatured as the rest of his work, lacking the depth of character that Blackshear lends them. These are paintings of convincingly real people, and this is a different form of nostalgia, a nostalgia which is novel and fresh, a nostalgia which broadens the range of the genre by coloring the bleached vision of a snow-white fantasy of the Old West. But Blackshear goes even further in his re-invention of the genre by introducing the aesthetics of the early 20th century into his work. He calls this body of his work “Western Nouveau.” The paintings are gorgeously designed, and cheerfully bright, flooded with the powerful influence of Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt. This is a fresh kind of Americana. These paintings are a fabulous new addition to a genre which had felt stagnant.
And Blackshear’s innovations are not going unrecognized. On October 8, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, where he takes his place alongside past luminaries like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Winslow Homer. His imagery entered mainstream popular culture this year, when the rock band The Killers used his paintings to illustrate their album Imploding the Mirage. He is being rewarded with financial success, too. His lovely Swan Song sold at the end of September at the Jackson Hole Art Auction for an impressive $77,350, more than double its high estimate. Blackshear is a rising star in the firmament of artists favored by the prosperous cowboy bourgeoisie, and will doubtlessly be viewed with awe by future collectors of Western art.
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