Articles

Cowboy Art Without the Irony

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“The Bronc Twister” statue located outside of Stampede Park (all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted)

CALGARY — For ten days every July, a particular brand of cowboy hat-wearing, two-stepping, and beer-swilling mayhem descends upon the city of Calgary, Alberta.  The Calgary Stampede, officially lauded as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” is ostensibly a rodeo, but its hallmarks include a thriving midway, free pancake breakfasts, and temporary tent bars with names like “Wildhorse” and “Nashville North” set up in parking lots.

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Max Lafontaine, “Rodeo Cowboy” (1982) hanging in my parent’s house. Source of terror in childhood and continued ambivalence today.

Amidst the debauchery lies a relatively more sedate art event, the Western Showcase.  The Showcase highlights “traditional and contemporary works that reflect the fusion of urban and rural influences”. This is cowboy art pure and simple. Think prairie landscapes, cowboys, horses, and cows. I grew up with this type of art. It even adorns the walls of my childhood home. The relationship between this Western Art and the cultural, historical, and personal identity of the city is more complicated than one might expect. Spotlighting this art is as much a bid to solidify a distinctive identity, as it is an expression of an already established municipal character.

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Carl Shinkaruk, “Precious Metal”

Two aspects of Calgary’s personality must be acknowledged in order to understand residents’ penchant for this type of art. First, enthusiasm for the Stampede runs deep. The city is still reeling from the effects of massive flooding at the end of June. The Stampede Grounds, located next door to the downtown core, was under several feet of water. Crews worked around the clock to ensure Stampede would proceed come hell or high water, and the state of emergency ended the same day the 101st annual event began. This intense rallying is a testament to Calgarians Stampede spirit, as well as the event’s role as a source of immense civic pride.

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Bronze sculptures by Chris Navarro

Secondly, I would be remiss not to mention Calgary’s tenuous, if not outright mythical, claims to a wild wild west. Last year The Walrus published Chris Turner’s revisionist take on the city, “Calgary Reconsidered.” Forget outlaws, Calgary was primarily settled by the Mounted Police and the Canadian Pacific Railway. And yet:

Back in 1912, a smooth talker named Guy Weadick, an eastern city boy who’d learned trick roping and made a living pretending to be a frontier cowboy, came riding into town and convinced four local bigwigs to throw some cash at his travelling circus, and 100 years later Calgary still organizes its summers around the Stampede he sold the city on. Weadick launched an institution and gave the city its founding myth, forever wedding young Calgary to its Cowtown reputation.

This myth is so deeply embedded in the city’s psyche that the art of the Western Showcase is accepted as both a reflection and embodiment of the region’s pioneering heritage. The Showcase had its first iteration as a handicrafts and baked goods competition in the 1930s and 40s. Over time, the event grew to encompass traditional fine art, and finally earned its present day moniker and mission in 1997.

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A painting by Don Oelze on display in the Western Showcase

The pieces on display in the 2013 Showcase are conventional; figurative painting and sculpture reign. The paintings tend towards two categories – landscape and variations on Cowboy, Indians, and ranch animals themes, while the sculpture takes human or animal form, with frequent combinations of the two.

Much of this art genre is typified by a perennial favorite of the Western Showcase, Don Oelze.  The Montana-based artist is known for his grandiose paintings of Native Americans in traditional dress set in sweeping landscapes. It’s a little discomforting to see a white artist applauded for his stereotypical depictions of historically oppressed peoples. These types of issues go largely unremarked upon within the context of the Showcase. The local Glenbow Museum does a far better job of addressing such fraught topics.

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Pascale Ouellet, “White Horse, White Wall” (2013) (image via the artist’s website)

There is some mild boundary pushing, largely concentrated in the contemporary artists who participate in the Showcase sponsored Artist Ranch Project. Chosen artists take part in a residency at a working Alberta ranch and subsequently create art for display (and sale) at the Stampede. One such artist, Pascale Ouellet uses encaustic, hot wax, to create large-scale images of domesticated animals, giving an updated, richly textured treatment to a typically western subject. And before castigating an entire category of subject matter, remember that even canonical artists have been known to dabble with such topics – just think of Andy Warhol’s cow wallpaper.

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Jim Dodson Jr. booth at the Western Showcase
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A painting by Edward Michell. (image via the artist’s website)

Edward Michell and Jim Dodson Jr. are the only two artists delving fully into abstract territory. Dobson Jr., originally from Oklahoma, creates metal sculptures welded into simple geometric forms. His work is crafted from old farm equipment and other recycled objects. Michell’s metallic, abstract expressionist-like canvases contain raw materials such as tar, crushed diamonds, and paints composed of berries and other plants. The Alberta economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas (hence the nickname, “The Texas of the North”), so materials like tar are not without political connotations. While oil ingredients are politically loaded, it’s difficult to discern whether these issues or purely aesthetic concerns motivate Michell’s choice. Based on his oil industry rich market audience, I’m betting on the latter.

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Recently unveiled painting by Adeline Halvorson to be used as the official 2014 Calgary Stampede poster

The official Stampede poster is its own form of artistic benchmark, marking the changing aesthetic tastes of the past several decades. While the posters of the 1990s were exercises in abundance, filled to the brim with every bucking horse, firework, rodeo clown, and cowboy that could fit – recent years have seen a turn towards the minimal. This year’s poster features black and white drawing of a mid-lasso cowboy atop his horse, while the recently unveiled 2014 poster focuses on a lone horse head with Carravagio-esque dramatic lighting.

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Sunti Pichetaiyakul booth at the Western Showcase

Art snobs finding themselves at Stampede should lay at least some of their pretensions aside. After all, there is something positive to be said about an art fair in which the artists are onsite, some of them with easels and sculpture areas set up to demonstrate their processes to the public. I recognize that I may feel slightly protective of this type of art; those horse sculptures and painted rumpled cowboys fall into a familiar, nostalgic corner of my own hometown experience. In truth, I would welcome the inclusion of more avant-garde pieces and artists with strong social and political voices, but I also understand why the city clings to its established traditions.

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Lots up for sale at The Calgary Stampede Western Art Auction

Calgary is an urban city that often pretends otherwise. We are far more progressive than our “Cowtown” reputation might have us appear. Our much-adored Mayor Naheed Nenshi is Muslim (the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city!), and he enthusiastically dons a cowboy hat and rides a horse in the Stampede Parade. The Canadian identity is difficult to pin down, and the shadow of Eastern cities like Toronto tends to loom large over the West. For these reasons, it’s understandable why Calgarians  continue to cling to their mythos of gunslingers and buckaroos. Art that oftentimes comes across as tawdry and even somewhat kitschy is purposefully meant to convey our unique history and rituals vis-à-vis the rest of Canada. Those oft-heard cries of “yee-haw!” and “ya-hoo!” broadcast a deeply sincere attachment to this nebulous yet carefully crafted sense of shared identity.

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2013 Calgary Stampede poster. (image via the official Calgary Stampede website)

The Western Showcase (Halls D and E of the BMO Centre at Stampede Park, Calgary, Alberta)  runs concurrently with the Calgary Stampede from July 5 – 14, 2013. 

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