A 2012 profile in Southwest Art tells the coming-of-age story of Billy Schenck, painter of the southwest now exhibiting at Modern West Fine Art: a Midwest boy who learned how to draw by copying comic books, in the mid-1960s he heads to art school, where he discovers the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, becomes an urbane and “hip” artist, soaks up the angst of Francis Bacon and spends his spring break in New York as a crew member for Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable; but when a friend invites him to the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, he also discovers the West — or rediscovers it, for he had spent his summers at an uncle’s place in Lander, Wyo., and remembers to this day a trip to the Acoma Pueblo when he was 5 — and decides to merge the two; and so after school he goes to Manhattan, where he takes Sergio Leone’s contemporary approach to the genre of western films and turns it to painting. Though sold-out shows soon follow, his take on the West ultimately proves too romantic for the cerebral cosmopolitans and his New York career seems to end almost as quickly as it began.
So then he truly heads West, to New Mexico, to the Southwest of Taos and Santa Fe. And he hasn’t left since; but neither has he left his days of Pop behind, and his work has been pulled between desert reverence and pulp play ever since.
Billy Schenck: West of the Wasatch features about 15 pieces, big and small, representative of the artist’s work in general. The paintings are executed in an almost completely flat manner, calling to mind silkscreens (a la Warhol), comic books or paint-by-numbers kits; which is not to say that they are simple, for the compositions are sophisticated and the palette of burnt secondary colors striking.
If you’re looking for scattered sagebrush and majestic skies, carved mesas and stunning sunsets, you’ll find plenty of it here. You’ll also find plenty of heroic figures, usually on horseback, framed by huge cumulus clouds — a trope so frequently employed it seems almost clumsy, until one sees the paintings that subvert the same trope, where, say, a rider in a work like “Study for Burning Daylight” casts a shadow across the sky and clouds, turning it into a backdrop rather than an actual setting. You won’t find this tongue-in-cheek attitude in Schenck’s images of Native Americans, however. Tightly composed, they are much more reverential and traditional: blanket-clad individuals, with pots, at peace in their dramatic landscapes. He seems, then, to be having it both ways, a touch of reverence here, and a dash of romanticism there, but just as frequently a wink and a nod to the underpinnings of the genre he has made his home.
His most playful works are the “caption paintings,” which he has been working on since 2000. Some of these feature speech bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein, but the two at Modern West feature more true captions, related to but not directly involved with the painting below. It is not entirely clear what to make of them, however. When one says that “43% of American Men Are Killed By Their Wives,” are we supposed to think that of the men killed in America 43% suffer mariticide; or that a full 43% of the male population is dying at the hands of their spouse? And a glance at the wistful look of the Native American in “In the Distant Past Only Indians Witnessed Heroic Sunsets” might make our knee jerk towards a simplistic reading of noble native vs. unwelcome arrivée; but this Indian is dressed in clothes from Sears & Roebuck, not the distant past; and that “only” is ambiguous, dictating different meanings depending on whether or not it stresses itself or the word that follows. Whether intentional or not this type of ambiguity serves these pieces well, making them stick in your mind longer than they would if the captions were more facile.
The most revealing pieces in the exhibit are the three large black and white photographs that hang on the gallery’s north wall, easily missed when heading to the arrangement of oil paintings in the gallery’s center. “Cowboys in the Sky” shows a pair of riders in an open range, a Monument Valley-esque butte in the distance. To our sophisticated, Photoshop-trained generation, the artifice of the image is quickly apparent: the horsemen are darker than the rest of the image, upon which they cast no discernible shadow, and the slant of horse and rider suggest they are descending a slope while the image shows them above a flat field of sagebrush. It is an obvious construct rather than a pretense at reality.
“Nude Cowgirl” may also have been digitally collaged but the evidence is less striking. The artifice, rather, is in the Lady Godiva subject: a naked, cowboy-hatted woman sits on top of a saddled horse, framed by a billowy white cloud. The photograph belongs to a series by the artist (a related painting can also be found on the north wall) featuring a female figure named for the sexualized stepmother from Greek myth, Phaedra. Mounted here on her noble steed, she is a continuation of Occidental art’s long tradition of the male gaze: Titian among the sagebrush, if you will. And ensconced in that cumulus frame, she suggests that the other works in this exhibit may be part of that same gaze — a glorified vision of the West as yet another unrealistic wish fulfillment; the gaze in this case being about rugged individualism, but also about ownership, exposing a vein of truth that runs through the false gold of our myth of the West.
The third photograph takes this gaze to violent extremes. A silver-haired man in jeans and white T-shirt stands atop an upturned wagon and appears to be pummeling someone just out of frame. Blood (an obvious digital addition) spurts up onto the man’s shirt, the wagon and the “fourth wall” of the lens. Behind, a cinematic grouping of Indian riders kick up dust in a Southwest setting. Scrawled across the top of the photograph is the caption “HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC WAS THE FACT THAT JOHN FORD AND SCHENCK HAD A MUTUALLY ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP. IT EVENTUALLY COST SCHENCK HIS CAREER AND FORD HIS LIFE.” The sentence suggests an ongoing narrative, and a related photograph, not on exhibit, expands on the Ford-Schenck feud, referring to the copyright of Monument Valley. This business of making money out of the myth of the West is serious and violent stuff, even if only in a pulp narrative kind of way.
This sense of unease seems to lie beneath the surface of many of Schenck’s works. In what many like to call our “post-historical” age, it seems difficult to take anything too seriously, and a lazy irony becomes our default mode. Schenck seems to be resisting this easy irony, as well as the equally easy romanticism, abundant in Santa Fe and other Southwest gallery towns, striving instead for something of a middle path, where he gets to have it both ways. He can exalt in the landscape and lore that have become his own, bearing at times on the edge of adulation; but he never takes himself or his art too seriously, reminding us that at the best what we are dealing with is a stage prop, a myth. It may not be possible anymore – if it ever was – to paint the ‘authentic’ Southwest, buried as it is beneath myth and kitsch and commerce. So one is always left painting “a Southwest.” Schenck at least knows it. Admits it. And seems to be having fun doing it.
Billy Schenck: West of the Wasatch is at Modern West Fine Art through March 14.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.