By DAVID BEARDEN
If you live in Texas, you can’t escape it. Sure, you can surround yourself with posh Dallas pretension, or let the hipster weirdness of Austin wash over you, or pretend you’re in Germany enjoying traditional cuisine at one of many Bavarian eateries in Fredericksburg, but you’ll never fully escape the iconic southwest cowboy vibe. The roots are authentic, deep, preserved and celebrated. I want to believe beneath the surface of every citizen of the Lone Star State lies a heartfelt love and gratitude for ol’ west cowfolk. Probably more than anywhere else, our love and respect for Texas history is kept alive in the arts. Musicians, thespians, community activists and visual artists keep the spirit of Texas alive through performance, storytelling, and artworks. They tell the stories of the men and women who, through hardship and real-deal suffering, cultivated what we affectionately now call home.
Lewisville recently hosted its annual Western Days weekend celebration. A day and a half of delicious food, cold drinks and great live music. Artists and crafters sold their wares up and down the closed streets of Old Town. Food trucks and vendors provided olfactory temptation. Bouncy air-filled attractions and the splash pad gave the littles more than enough to squeal about. It’s a community-building event that appeals to what makes Texas, and Lewisville specifically, great—a deep commitment to our rich history and devotion to marry it with contemporary cultural trappings in an authentic and genuine way so as not to forget where we came from, or deny our power to navigate where we’re going. It was during this year’s Western Days that I had an opportunity to escape the heat for a few minutes and explore the current show at the MCL Grand’s art gallery, “The Art & Characters of Frontier Texas!” I was sure I knew what to expect moments before entering the gallery: paintings of cowboy life, weathered fence posts, rusted barbed wire and scenes of cattle drives and wagon trails. I was mostly correct.
The first images to grab my attention were the eight larger-than-life full figure portraits covering the expanse of the back wall. They are very large bright and colorful photographs printed on lenticular panels, which appear as ribbed plastic sheets designed to achieve one of three effects: motion through animation, transition from one image into another or implied 3D depth. Once I stood directly in front of each photograph I could see the intent of the panels.
The figures appeared to stand in front of the background separated from what lies behind them. The figures don’t reach beyond the picture plane, as a more sophisticated 3D system might allow. The effect is a shallow space between the figure and the background, almost symbolic of a victory over circumstance. They appear to shift as the viewer walks by, as if they are still alive and living amongst us. While I can appreciate the scale of the photos and the perceived attempt to bring the photos to life, something about the presentation looks forced, as if they belong to a set of promotional photos for a theatrical production about the history of Texas. They will definitely grab your attention but look out of place amongst the eight black and white Erwin E. Smith photos of life on the range and the HC Zachry paintings of cowboys and Native Americans.
HC Zachry’s paintings reminded me of something I don’t often think about in regards to my own work: a great challenge of painting, any style or subject matter, is providing quantitatively dense nuggets of information with seemingly wistful and distracted brush strokes.
The ability to say a lot with little effort (read: great effort to appear like little effort) is one of two great qualities of Zachry’s paintings. The other is his understanding of composition, specifically his well-crafted sense of depth. He brings the viewers’ eyes in close with dynamic angles and a clear understanding of the rule of thirds. The focal points of his pieces are visually engaging due to his brush work and ability to visualize popular narratives. Once captivated by the focus, the viewer’s eye moves about the work smoothly. There is nothing inherently groundbreaking about these time period works, but they are well-crafted and speak clearly about Zachry’s interest in preserving Texas culture.
The eight Erwin E. Smith photos were my favorite part of the exhibit. They are relatively small in size, which works to hook the viewer and bring them in close. I found myself completely engaged in the activity pictured. I could smell the cobbler being prepared at the back of the chuckwagon. I could feel the sore muscles of the men as they drank coffee. I could feel the heat and dust covering everything and everyone. I could sense their longing to be reunited with their families. The sensations I felt were of course a lie, or at least exaggerated; I have no way of knowing how any of the people pictured in the photo-stories felt. But, it doesn’t matter. Smith and his subjects brought empathy to the experience for me. Any art that conjures a viewer’s empathetic response deserves celebration and respect.
I try to remind myself of other people’s situations and challenges as an attempt to practice humility and remain steadfast. I never want to be so consumed with my own life that I either forget history or ignore the present. The paintings, photos, and sculptures depict a rich and tragic history of the great state of Texas— a time of do or die, fight or flight, survival by any means necessary. Such cult-like love for Texas exists in two realms: a genuine appreciation for what came before and kitschy truckstop souvenir branding that solidifies Texas as a destination stop for travellers worldwide. Either way, I love living in Texas. And I love art. This exhibit, while partly contrived, had me nostalgic and hungry for more stories about how my home came to be.
(Featured photo: Home Sweet Home – 2012 – Painting by HC Zachry)