Billy Schenck's West

Last week in Spring River Gallery he opened what is undoubtedly one one of our most colorful exhibits in recent memory, Billy Schenck's West: A Retrospective.

Billy Schenck is the quintessential Pop Western artist, his painting postmodern in its conceptual framework, visual aesthetic, and sense of humor. Channeling the bright colors and ironic undertones of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Schenck synthesizes a variety of stylistic and cultural influences to simultaneously celebrate and critique iconic western imagery. From the lone cowboy and the disappearing Indian, to the landscape itself, Schenck invites viewers to reexamine the archetypes of the West and consider how they continue to shape our culture.

Schenck grew up in Wyoming and earned his BFA in art from the Kansas City Art Institute. Initially working in a manner similar to the visually raw imagery of Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Schenck decided to take on western subjects after seeing the expansive vistas and distorted angles of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, released in the United States in 1967. 

Schenck moved to New York City during the 1960s, and even  worked for a time for Andy Warhol at his Factory. In 1975, Schenck relocated to Santa Fe, where he remains the proprietor of the Double Standard Ranch. In addition to his artistic activity, Schenck has also participated extensively in rodeo, and is a World Champion Ranch Sorter. 

Let's take a closer look at some of these paintings:

Billy Schenck, Many, Many Miles, 2014, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Schenck creates his paintings by extracting figures from different visual and historical sources pertaining to the West, including film stills, pulp novel covers, and illustrations from Maynard Dixon and other twentieth-century western artists. Schenck then paints these figures into new compositions using vibrant, opaque colors, laying down individual hues next to one another in clearly-delineated areas in a process he calls "the paint by number technique." The resulting paintings have a distinctly crisp, posterized appearance reminiscent of comic books, underscoring Schenck's aesthetic and visual connections with Warhol, Lichtenstein, and similar Pop artists.

Billy Schenck, Study for Judgment at Cly Mesa, 2014, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Here's a good example of Schenck's use of historical visual material. The central figure is taken from a lithograph by Maynard Dixon, one of the most prominent western artists and illustrators of the first half of the 20th century.

From a visual culture standpoint, the choice of Dixon images for this painting underscores the extent to which an image assume a life of its own in new contexts. The Dixon lithograph was first published on the contents page of Sunset magazine in October 1902, and was titled Navajo Indian from Life. During this early part of his career, Dixon provided illustrations for several books and periodicals, including Sunset, which had been established in 1898. While Sunset is best known as a western lifestyles publication today, it originally served as a promotional vehicle for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Its primary demographic target at this time was the Anglo-American population located in the Eastern part of the United States, and was intended to boost tourism and settlement in the West, particularly California

Navajo Indian from Life was Dixon’s first illustration for Sunset, and his representation of a Navajo wrapped in a blanket proved immensely popular with readers. In 1903, the lithograph was republished as Sunset's cover image for the month of February, with Dixon reworking the image to have the figure facing the viewer directly. Shortly after the 1903 publication, Sunset began to sell the work in poster form, without the magazine text, selling 250,000 copies by 1907 alone. What had started out as a filler illustration for a contents page became an autonomous image that capitalized on the East Coast fascination with the Southwest during the early 20th century.

In Schenck's painting, the figure is painted into a new context. Instead of being a solitary figure, the blanketed Navajo is now part of a triad, providing a sense of visual solidarity. At the same time, however, none of the figures interact with one another, and all three have wrapped themselves in blankets, concealing their bodies in a manner that suggests a distanced, almost aloof quality. The low horizon line further enhances the monumentality of the figures, with the triad towering over the mountainous background. What was once a solitary, mildly decorative image suitable for the passing glance of a magazine reader now assumes a more central, narrative quality, though the exact story being told remains ambiguous.

When it comes to appropriating and reinterpreting visual culture, however, Schenck is probably best known for his use of film stills. Here's a still from the 1952 Son of Paleface, starring Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and Jane Russell...

Billy Schenck, Just Say No, Bob, 1992, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
...and here is a similar still from the same movie, reinterpreted. This piece isn't part of the show, but it's a good example of Schenck's playful use of both word and image. Several of his paintings include captions or dialogue bubbles, further underscoring the conceptual links that his work shares with comics and other visual forms adopted by Pop artists. Often containing dialogue pertaining to social, political, and gender-related issues, these captions add humor while disrupting the conventional interpretations behind the iconic Western imagery Schenck depicts. In this case, the mid-20th century's romanticized, idealistic vision of the uninhibited Wild West is juxtaposed with the controversial War on Drugs of the 1980s, more specifically First Lady Nancy Reagan's slogan "just say no!"

Billy Schenck, Geoff Stared...2011, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
As you've probably guessed by now, one of the things I like about Schenck's work is the way he plays around with the mythology of the West itself. I've spent nearly half my life out West in one form or another, but I've never fully grasped the romanticism of the so-called "Wild West" on an emotional level (intellectually I get the appeal though), so I appreciate seeing an artist who subverts and questions that mythology even as he celebrates it.

The gaze in particular plays an important role in his work, emphasizing the importance of vision to our understanding of the West as both place and concept. In paintings such as Geoff Stared…, the central figure looks toward a view or object beyond the immediate vicinity of the picture plane, their distant gazes evoking not only the openness of southwestern geography, but also paying homage to the mythology surrounding the Wild West and its supposed disappearance. Are these figures seeking out a historical West that no longer exists in twenty-first century society, or an imaginary one that dwells exclusively within the fictional world of movies, television, and pulp novels? Given the fact that so many of Schenck’s figures originate from fictional sources, the answer remains ambiguous, underscoring the extent to which our understanding of the West is as much the product of movies and novels as it is of history. Geoff Stared… in particular addresses the idea of the "disappearing West" directly. Seated alone with rifle in hand, the cowboy in this work embodies the cultural longing and nostalgia that American society has experienced for the supposed Old West ever since the U.S. census declared the frontier closed in 1890.

Yet as Schenck’s representations of self-assured modern cowgirls and other more contemporary figures suggest, the West as both place and state of mind is still very much alive and unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

Ample text today, I know, but Schenck's paintings are just steeped with fun art history.