Wild West Wit
By Milo Miles
A new book displays the unsentimental, surreal humor of an exquisitely modern painter of the modern West.
Milo Miles reviews music and books for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station. © Copyright 2003, WBUR
Until about 10 or 15 years ago, virtually all the art of the Western United States smacked of cheap piety. Its schmaltzy nature themes were set in concrete: the landscape of the vast plains and immense mountain ranges, how wildlife survived in it and how human life had played out in that landscape during the 19th century. Another gorgeous sunset in Yosemite. Another dream of oceanic buffalo herds. Another tattered headdress to symbolize the fall of the Native American. Ho hum.
This deliriously romantic view of landscape was probably shaped by the legacy of the Hudson River School, though by the time TV became the main source of information about frontier life, Norman Rockwell in a Stetson hat was the dominant tone. Could anything shake things out of this hokey time warp? Modernist movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, never sat well in the West, or at least failed to develop much regional appeal for artists. But there were other remedies closer to the soul of the West: workaday Surrealism and bizarre humor.
Some of the revered founders of Western art showed the way. Charlie Russell, for instance, was anything but a stiff in pieces like “In Without Knocking”. For a long while, it seemed only a few veterans, like Jack Fordyce, might carry on the tradition of mixing wryness and the West (such as his “Waiting for the Stage,” a deadpan realistic oil in which the hold-up man’s horse is also wearing a bandana mask). Earthy, corny cowboy jokes, however, have an enduring and even international appeal: Daryl Talbot’s “Cowboy Cartoons”.
And a generation of potential Western artists grew up reading Stan Lynde’s “Rick O’Shay” newspaper comic strip, which began as a mildly surreal satire of the West but became more somberly dramatic with passing years. This paid off with the rise of the rock-and-roll generation, who has confirmed there is a Western market for the wry, the whimsical, and the outrageous, such as Monte Dolack’s more modern pastoral fantasies or the more crazed and corrosive wit of DuckBoy cards.
But the Royal Jester of modern Western art has to be Parks Reece of Livingston, Montana. The selections in his book “Call of the Wild” display his strengths: his slow burning witticisms have, cumulatively, a profound effect, partly because they slyly subvert the tyranny of the outdoor landscape.
At first, Reece’s paintings snag the viewer the way humorous art has since the first knock-knock hieroglyphics: they make you smile. Some of his lesser items, “Poltermeist” and “Poultrygeist,” for instance, never grow beyond good graphic puns. But Reece has a deeply playful mind: he enjoyed a childhood that would be the envy of every grade-school artist. His mother, Gwyn Finley Reece, was a nationally known finger painter (and you thought it wasn’t a serious field).
Viewers quickly notice that a low-key part of his wit is his use of beasts, as in “Fire Two!” in which
a trout launches torpedoes toward a fly fisher or “Grizzly Tools,” where the silverback bruin prepares to use beavers to cut down a tree with a tasty camper in it. But the animal world is sometimes the victim of Reece’s strangeness: a trout being pulled from the water by a fisherman’s line takes on a fresh twist if you label it “Alien Abduction.”
Inhabitants of the West will find tangy insider jokes in “Rodeo Fly Fishing”: it is tempting to call it the “Highbrow DuckBoy” effect. Others, such as “Elvis Sighted in Montana” are cosmically perfect: of course, the King would show up standing between two Grizzly bears. Still other Reece items like “Where Angels Leer at Fred” are well, ridiculous in a unique way.
The last, though perhaps most durable, aspect of Reece’s painting is that the Western landscape is concretely present but, at the same time, abstracted. His pictures deal with summer, autumn, forests and fields, no question. But often foliage and landforms are suggested by no more than mottled and spongy color blips that recall Surrealist Max Ernst’s “frontage” technique. You become very fond of these vistas, once-removed, and appreciate just how closely observed they are. After a while, the viewer notices that the Krazy Kritters cavorting in this landscape are the exact fauna suited to this eccentric ecology. Then you stop thinking about the jokes, and start thinking about Parks Reece as simply an unsentimental, exquisitely modern painter of the West.