#RAWHIDE is one of my favorite gallery shows of the summer. It is one of the most varied and yet thematically structured exhibits I have seen so far. The exhibit includes paintings, silkscreens, sculptures, photographs, drawings, newspapers, magazines, and comics, all depicting an interpretation of the American cowboy. He (or she) is stereotyped, exalted, made fun of, objectified and commercialized. These processes have shaped common perceptions of this public character. #RAWHIDE takes these two-dimensional representations of the cowboy and frames them, removing all context from their existence. In doing so, the audience is forced to truly see how the media’s obsession with the All-American hero has reduced the cowboy to a stock, cliche-ridden character, devoid of personality.
It is best to think about #RAWHIDE as a selection of representations. Each is an attempt to encompass the idea of the cowboy, and yet a different combination of values, influences, and targeted audiences inject bias into each one. One of the most visible representations is that of the overly sexualized cowboy. He is well-groomed, half-clothed or naked, and often homosexual. His neatly-trimmed body hair conflicts with the notion of the rugged cowboy, but this is not the rugged cowboy. This is the beautiful, glistening cowboy whose chaps seem to be missing some fabric around his derrière. This cowboy is a manifestation of desire, the image supplied when a population demanded him.
Physique Pictorial, the first all-nude and all-male magazine, provided this version of the cowboy to the masses. These covers are from the mid-20th century.
The fetishization of the cowboy made its way from mainstream porno magazines to the lenses of more artistic photographers. The infamous Robert Mapplethorpe photographed a man with a cowboy boot. His eyes peep over the top of the boot, just barely meeting the viewer’s eyes. His subservient gaze and the title of the work, Boot Fetish (1979), further emphasize the sexualization of the cowboy.
These images reminded me of the Naked Cowboy who runs around Time Square in a pair of tighty-wihities and a guitar. The sexualization of the male body, specifically that of the cowboy figure, continues to this day.
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Another easily tangible representation of the cowboy is that of the emotionless, brooding, loner. This cowboy is still sexualized- he is more often that not incredibly handsome- but the focus is on his impenetrable gaze. His distance is what makes him so tantalizing.
Andy Warhol produced a series of silkscreens entitled Dennis Hopper Portrait (1970).
The saturating effect of the silkscreen draws the viewer to Hopper’s eyes. He infuriatingly refuses to look back at us, choosing instead to look off into the distance. His eyes are thickly lidded and his hat casts a shadow on his forehead, rendering him totally inaccessible. It is a sharp contrast to the easy accessibility of the naked cowboy.
Another characteristic of this brooding cowboy is Richard Prince’s Untitled (2012). This modern painting presents its protagonist with a dead body. He responds by draping it over the front of his horse and continuing on.
It is hard to tell if the corpse is that of a friend or a foe. Is he bringing back a fallen comrade for proper burial or parading around with a victory trophy? The cowboy’s stern stare reveals nothing, except that he is a manifestation of American society; an emotionless man who will always be misunderstood. In this case, “being constantly misunderstood” is a trait that is almost fetishized.
This cowboy is the Clint Eastwood of cowboys, delivering each line in a slow monotone. This is the cowboy who rides off into the sunset, alone, when the credits roll.
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#RAWHIDE includes Native American imagery. Here I was somewhat unclear. Were the curators attempting to show that the characters of the cowboy and the native were sometimes one or that natives shaped the character of the cowboy? Roy Lichtenstein’s Face and Feather (1979) depicts a yellow geometric face and a feather.
The color of the face suggests that it is a white man. The feather is a Native American object and symbol. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the two suggests a cultural mingling. This does not seem right, though, given the cultural obliteration and genocide that took place in its stead. It is possible, then, that Lichtenstein was attempting to portray the process of cultural appropriation on canvas. The shapes and lines of the feather are echoed in the structure of the man’s face, as if he is absorbing the essence of Native American culture. Would it be a stretch to say that cowboys, or the mountain men who interacted with native people, brought back elements of native culture that came to characterize cowboys themselves?
Also included in #RAWHIDE is another Warhol silkscreen, The American Indian (Russel Means) (1976).
This figure does not attempt to be anyone other than who he is, an Oglala Lakota native and activist. The definition of a cowboy is “a man who does most of his work on horseback.” Many Native AMericans, of many different tribes, rode horses. They were a vital part of daily life. And so, #RAWHIDE asks, is Russel Means a cowboy? He fits the definition, and yet he most certainly is not one. Is a cowboy always white, then? Is a cowboy automatically in conflict with natives, by definition? The inclusion of such a picture is a key dialogue-opening artwork. It makes the viewer question what the term “cowboy” even means.
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Throughout the rest of #RAWHIDE, other representations of the classic American cowboy are shown. Is the cowboy always a man? Annie Oakley comics beg the question. She has the hat, gun, fringe.. she even has the silent stare.
A portrait by Richard Avedon entitled Peggy Daniels, cashier, Giddings, texas, May 7, 1981 (1985) asks the same question, and further attempts to define a “modern” cowboy.
Not only is she a woman. She wears (relatively) modern clothing and does not work on horseback daily. She is a cashier. And yet she is from rural Texas, freckled from the sun, and wears the determined expression seen in representations of cowboys for a hundred years prior. She appears to be much more authentic than the glossy, naked men wearing banana hammocks and toting guns who appeared in pin-up calendars.
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#RAWHIDE presents the cowboy as commercialized. A mixed media piece entitled Ndofu, by Jason Rhoades (2005) places a cowboy hat atop a conglomeration of kitschy cowboy porcelain pieces. Dream catchers peek out from behind extension chords, and the entire work sits atop of a metal shelving unit.
Ndofu represents the commercialization of the cowboy. Now every person can have their own porcelain horse and cart for their kitchen, their own dreamcatcher… In fact, anyone can play cowboy if he or she puts on the hat! Cigarette burns on the hat symbolize its dissolution as a token of pride into a costume. The cowboy was once a person elevated from the masses, albeit extremely objectified. But now, he has become so flattened a character that his clothes can be slipped into in order for his personage to be temporarily borrowed.
This is the effect of American media. An individual undergoes a series of transformations. First into an object of desire and then an object of consumption, until his or her insides are wiped clean for appropriation. #RAWHIDE embodies the dehumanization of people through media, by isolating images of cowboys over a hundred year period. What we are left with is a room filled with stereotypes, reflections of desires and values; the aftermath of a character overly-saturated by books and TV. It is a warning and a reminder of the toxic effect of media. In true artistic style, it manages to achieve this and yet also be utterly beautiful. I was enamored by Ed Rushca’s Dry Frontier (1987).
It should be noted that this review is not an attempt to deem “cowboy appropriation” more important an issue than other forms of stereotyping. In fact, given the inclusion of Native American influences and characters, I would like to clarify that it is not my intention to place more emphasis on cowboys as a people appropriated. The appropriation of Native American culture is a widespread and extremely pressing issue. The mass-murder of entire tribes- often at the hands of “cowboys”- is an unforgivable crime. I put cowboy in quotations because, as you have just seen, it is not an easy term to define. #RAWHIDE simply looks at one case in which American media created and destroyed its own hero for the benefit and consumption of society. It is certainly not the only example.
I hope that you will go see these and more works in #RAWHIDE at Venus Over Manhattan before July 11th. I found it riveting, and the subject matter is very recognizable to both art-lovers and the less artistically inclined. In fact, if you have a friend who abuses the sentence, “My kid could make that,” then this is the exhibit to bring him to! He will not be disappointed, and you will not be exasperated! 🙂
xoxo, Chloe ❤