WILD AND WOOLLY
CURATOR’S STATEMENT: RYAN ARTHURS
Romantic notions of America’s Western frontier have been widely depicted and promoted in literature and film. The Wild West and our frontier history has long captured our imagination, but our fascination with Western legend has also distorted our understanding of American history by blurring fact and fiction, myth and reality. Historian David Murdoch writes, “no other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.” Wild and Woolly explores our collective fascination with the American West and brings together five artists, Sean Downey, Olivier Laude, David Lefkowitz, Robin Myers and Deborah Oropallo, who blend fact and fiction to re-imagine the frontier landscape and its peoples.
The title of this exhibition, Wild and Woolly, comes from an expression of American origin that came into being to describe the ‘wild’ west of the country sometime after the California Gold Rush era of the 1850s. The term was widely circulated during the frontier days to describe the rude, violent, lawless and uncivilized character of the frontier. Within a fine arts context, the phrase is alluring for its rich descriptive and physical properties, as relating to surface and texture.
The exhibition title also references the 1917 silent film of the same name, which tells the story of one man's personal odyssey from sophisticated Easterner to Western tough guy. The film follows a rich, young New York businessman who dreams of living as a cowboy. The trouble is, that the days of the Wild West are long past; law, order and the finer things in life have found their way west. Hearing of the wealthy young man’s trip, the townspeople conspire to deceive him, playing into the stereotypes of a Western town. While the film captures the tropes and charms of the American West in effort to subvert the Western genre, it also affirms and perpetuates certain virtues of the Old West.
The artists of Wild and Woolly include Sean Downey, Olivier Laude, David Lefkowitz, Robin Myers and Deborah Oropallo. Sean Downey and Olivier Laude use ideas of the West as popularly portrayed in cinema and literature, to create a fictional place populated by colorful and unsavory characters. Laude’s photographs are meticulously researched and constructed; special attention is placed in casting his subjects, styling their wardrobes, selecting or creating props and particularly to scouting his locations. Each photograph requires careful staging, lighting and orchestration. The resulting photographs are a fantasy like tableaux, a highly vivid, absurd vision. For Laude, identity is a matter of performance and the artist uses visual queues to transform his fictionalized studies into convincing explorations of visual identity.
Sean Downey’s paintings of Western figures, like cowboys and lumberjacks, are cast as tragic figures rather than action stars or heroes. Their physical features are distorted, bulbous noses with burst blood vessels, ingrown hairs and various grisly visages. Downey writes; “my current body of work is an aggregate of sources, images, and fictions drawn from American history and seen through the lens of autobiography and poetic narrative. I am particularly interested in the American West as a location and a jumping-off point for allegorical images that nod to cinema and history-painting, but that ultimately tell a much less linear story.” The work included in this exhibition explores the American West of the 1960s and 70s, where “passionate hippie causes give way to burnout malaise and back-to-the-land self-sufficiency leads to survivalist seclusion.”
David Lefkowitz’s work reflects an effort to embody some basic contradictions. He combines objects or materials like lumber, cardboard, and sheetrock, with imagery depicted in oil paint or other media, to draw attention to the paradoxes we live with everyday- between the real and the ideal, nature and culture, fragmentation and wholeness, abstraction and representation. Lefkowitz’s work is humorous and deceptively accessible. In this exhibition I’ve included a number of painted sculptural curiosities, from the series Wood By-Products. Lefkowitz trump l’oeil objects re-connect natural resource to material product, calling attention to deforestation and development simultaneously.
Deborah Oropallo’s digital constructed paintings are created entirely from images mined from internet sources and masterfully manipulated. “Although the language of deliberation is painting, the computer rather than the brush is conduit.” Oropallo’s figurative works from her series Wild Wild West present the stereotype of the rodeo cowgirl as victorious heroine, a signifier of feminine power replete with accessories and attributes. Reveling in the visual language of fashion, Oropallo presents the elaborate costumes of rodeo culture with flair, majesty and power. In this exhibition, two rodeo clown-cowgirls, Patsy and Montana, are presented, each in sexy regalia, replete with all the western signifiers; sheriff stars, bandanas, cowboy hats, bucking brancos, ropes, tack and cowgirl names. The rodeo clowns pose and gesture against a dreamlike background of bucking broncos, presiding over a highly charged fantasy realm born of the American West. The artist writes; “While these rodeo clowns are supposed to be a distraction for the horse, these new female clowns with cleavage also serve to distract the rider.”
Lastly, the photographs of Robin Myers expand notions of the frontier to outer space. Using astronomical glass-plate negatives from Harvard University’s archives, Myers has re-photographed the galaxy using a 20x24 large format Polaroid camera. I can think of no better symbol of the frontier than the moon; it is the touchstone of imagination, the unattainable, solitary figure of the night sky. So many parallels can be made between the moon and the American West and Myers’ photographs seem to trigger our deepest desires to explore, drift and dream.
While the frontier may not have existed quite as we imagine it, I hope this exhibition, through its layers of paint and emulsion, demonstrates how artists continue to explore the West as fantasy and construction.