A New Look at Western Art

Perception, Relation and Experience

Clyde “Ross” Morgan,Gearing Up
Half-life-size bronze with half-size leather saddle by Carson Thomas
Gena LaCoste, Sun and Shadow
watercolour on canvas, 16″ x 20″
Wanda Whaley, Tatanka
earth pigment on clay pot, 22″ x 17″

Charlie Russell didn’t pull any punches in responding to a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post about an exhibit of modern art in 1913. “Yes,” he said, I saw the cubist and futurist exhibit in New York, but can’t savvy that stuff. It may be art … but I can’t savvy it. Now I may paint a bum horse, but people who know what a horse looks like will know that I tried to paint a horse, at least.”

For Russell, the difference from modern art is that western art viewers and collectors will “savvy” the subject of a painting and will judge its quality by how well it matches their experience, something they share with the artist. A hundred years later, this difference still marks the range of western art. To look at western art, to enjoy it enough to own some or collect it means being able to “savvy” the difference.

For most of the century that separates us from Charlie Russell, modern art was explained as a succession of styles or “isms” – realism, impressionism, cubism, futurism, surrealism and so on. One style rises as another sets. The value of a modern artwork was established by originality, shock, or provocation, and later it would increase again if it earned a place in the story of a particular style. Western art tells a different kind of story, one that charts a relation to conventional subjects – landscape, wildlife, First Nations, ranching, rodeo, to name a few – rather than a break with a previous style. There’s a greater likelihood that western art will display historical accuracy, or spark a humorous or nostalgic response in a viewer rather than shock,
provoke, or disturb. It’s not that one style is better than the other; they’re just different.

For western art, all styles are present. The attention to photo-realistic detail that characterizes some artists working in pencil or painters like Andrew Kiss is just as common as the use of painterly, impressionistic effects that draw our attention from the subject to the texture of brush strokes. One style isn’t necessarily newer or more innovative than another; it simply tells us how the artist resolved their work with the technical resources at hand.

Western art also has a special relationship with tradition. Rather than try to create a break with the past, Western art engages with tradition. For some artists there’s a clear lineage. Ken Mayernik’s technical skill with bronze owes something to his having been a student of Jay Contway, who in turn sought out technical advice from Charlie Beil, who brought the sculpting and casting skills north that he’d learned under Charlie Russell’s mentorship. The Calgary Stampede’s distinctive tradition of awarding bronzes by these artists to rodeo and chuckwagon winners has seen new generations of artists follow their trails.

Does this mean that western art is static, tradition-bound or lacking in innovation? If one of its tasks is to draw new viewers to western heritage, then there has to be change in how an artist engages both convention and tradition. This can be as diverse as the artists one chooses to consider, but it is possible to sketch three aspects of innovation – by technique or medium; by subject matter; and by negotiating the line between art and utility.

One aspect of innovation in Western art sees the creative exploration of an element of a traditional medium, or the use of an entirely new medium. An artist might tackle a conventional subject but intensify the palette of colours they use to depict it. Or they might cultivate freshness in a subject through their use of negative space – the information and detail they leave out. Gina LaCoste’s watercolours achieve this by giving the viewer less detail and information about a horse’s mane than another artist may try to include. Sculptors like Clyde Ross Morgan are adept at playing with negative space, creating a pleasure and engagement for the viewer who fills in the empty spaces. Artists might also play with tradition by working with an entirely new medium. This can involve moving away from painting on canvas or paper to use leather or silk, or it can involve the use of found or industrial surfaces as in Wanda Whaley’s paintings on old slate roofing tiles from the Banff Springs Hotel

Michelle Grant, Willie & Kananaskis
graphite on paper, 16″ x 15″

The creative exploration of subject matter is another innovative challenge – because the artist must both preserve and expand accepted notions of what constitutes western art. The late Dale Auger combined an intuitive sense of design with an evocation of First Nations spirituality. His work demonstrates a fresh use of colour and of treating the human figure, but it’s the effect of the subject he introduced that has had a profound emotional impact on viewers and the spiritual direction of western art.

When summer came and cameras rolled, the crew braved wicked dust storms that forced them to shut down production. “They quickly learned that the cowboys didn’t wear boots and bandanas just for show; they needed them to keep the dust out of their lungs and out of their shoes,” says Phillips. “Within days of beginning the shoot the crew was decked out in bandanas, boots and cowboy hats as shelter from the dust and the sun. It was sweltering hot, the dust got into everything. It was absolutely perfect for the story.”

Andrew Kiss, Free Spirits
oil on canvas, 40″ x 60

While it’s convenient to think of art as encompassing either two dimensions (painting, drawing, watercolour, etc.), or three (sculpture, carving, cast bronze, etc.), a recent innovation weds art with more utilitarian or artisanal work. Functional housewares and furnishings now are built around works of art. Jay Contway turns a bronze sculpture into a lamp base, and Linda Krisjansons makes clay vases that rival the complexity and imagination of the best sculpture. Clyde Ross Morgan has collaborated with saddle makers like Carson Thomas and Duff Severe and incorporated scaled versions of their work into his bronze compositions. Whaley’s recent work involves extending her archetypal images of horses and bison to the surface of pottery and vases.

Jay Contway, Almost Home
bronze, 14″ x 17″ x 21″

The spirit of their creative, contemporary embrace with tradition gives voice to the unfolding story of western art.

Brian Rusted lives outside of Nanton and has been the volunteer coordinator of the Calgary Stampede’s Western Art Show.

Taliaferro, John (1996). Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.