The inauthentic disrupts the authentic in Chad Crane’s Taming the Myth, an exhibition of new paintings opening at Palmers Gallery as part of the Gallery Stroll on April 17th. With sardonic whimsy, Crane explores the heroic clichés of the nineteenth-century American West, which are mostly reduced to conflicts between “cowboys and Indians.” His deft manipulation of multiple media—acrylic gel transfer, oil, colored pencil, graphite, and a fine layer of encaustic over all—allows viewers to accept that these somewhat ridiculous characters and incongruous symbols can be coherent in time and place, even as his caricature-like rendering of them unites us in seeing our reality as firmly distinct from theirs. They remind us that, as Crane puts it, “what’s represented isn’t actually what happened at all.”
Less a critique than a tongue-in-cheek investigation of artifice, Taming the Myth enables Crane to synthesize an abundance of influences and memories. He attributes this particular body of work to his exposure to another cliché of the West: the county fair, where he encountered kitschy, though earnest, genre paintings in the mode of Charles Russell and Frederick Remington. “My first exposure to fine art was limited to garish oil paintings of cowboys in blue jeans, Indians and wolves, ponies galloping in fields of hay,” he says. Raised in small-town Morgan, Utah, Crane does not lack for what might be labeled as credibility; his childhood diversion of playing cowboys and Indians was made all the more real by a general consciousness of the history and landscape of the region. There were also B-Westerns, graphic novels, and video games—all are intermingled in his paintings to suggest that our collective memory of the West is in many ways a construct, one that is “exaggerated, romanticized, and false.” Crane alludes to the knottiness of this construct in a poem that accompanies the show:
You can’t remember if it’s a movie,
a postcard, a painting at the county fair
or the opening lines of Louis L’Amour,
but it’s the West—the only West
you have ever known.
“Taming the Myth,” the large painting from which the exhibition takes its title, demonstrates the complexity of unweaving myth from memory. Set in a barren landscape with an endless sky, the work presents an unlikely grouping of figures: a high-stepping, slightly elderly cowboy leers, while a Native American man of indeterminate tribal origin gallantly wields a forked implement at a crudely rendered dinosaur, which is in turn ridden bareback by a busty Annie-Oakley type. The fanciful proportions of these figures reference the style of the graphic novels Crane admires, while the absurdity of their interaction the result of his jumbling of these novels and other images and impressions. There is a rupture here, but not within the time of the painting; we can accept this interaction as long as it is confined to the realm of myth. The rupture is between the painting’s audacity and the viewer’s distrust of its sincerity.
The painting also demonstrates the complexity of Crane’s process. He begins with a ground of Pollock-esque splatters of acrylic, onto which he layers graphite, pencil, and oil paint. Instead of building up the figures, however, he builds up the spaces around them, making each a void that reveals the mottled ground, which the artist sees as ephemeral as that ever-changing construct of the West. As a result, the figures are actually absences, even as their surroundings assert a more noticeable material presence. Certain articles of clothing—the cowboy’s shirt and hat, the younger man’s loincloth, and the woman’s fringed getup—are further articulated by layers of pale yellow oil paint, offering distraction from the uniformity of the figures’ bodies, faces, and hair and, more importantly, calling attention to the costume-like nature of their attire. Several isolated heart-shaped forms are seemingly carved from the heavy impasto near the center of the panel; these symbolize for Crane the “overly venerated nature” of representations of the West, portrayals that are “overloaded with sentimentality.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Crane makes an interesting connection between the game of bowling and these (mis)conceptions of the West. He began incorporating bowling pins into his paintings in what he describes as intuitive strategy. Looking back, Crane recognizes the significance of observing a group of fatigues-clad teenagers playing an arcade hunting game; as he watched them relish killing for sport, he thought of how disconnected this seemed from the act of purposeful hunting—it was merely a romanticized echo of something real. Combining this event with his memories of those childhood games in which the cowboys always defeated the Indians, he began to see games, and specifically bowling, as a lens through which he could “exaggerate the story that’s been told to me,” an essentially ahistorical account narrated by Marlboro advertisements and John Wayne films.
Crane directly cites bowling with “10 Frames,” a series of 22 small panels installed in two identical rows to suggest two lines on a bowling score card, with a rectangular panel for the player’s name followed by ten square panels, or frames, in which to record scores.|2| One of the rows is dedicated to images of cowboys, the other to Indians, making these two groups the “players” in the game. Many of the figures that populate the panels have been created via acrylic gel transfer: Crane takes an existing image, copied from old graphic novels and the how-to bowling manual he discovered at a thrift shop, flips it, then presses it into the wet surface of acrylic gel that has been applied to the panel. After the gel has picked up the ink and thus the image, he sands down its surface and continues to paint on and around it. The transfer technique is especially suited to this subject, for it produces images that are hazy around the edges and faded in spots, like the mythic West itself. As the last step in a rather complicated process, the painting’s final coating of encaustic smoothes over any unevenness of surface, essentially suspending the figures in an impenetrable space out of time.
With his 1986 Cowboys and Indians series, Andy Warhol also drew attention to the inauthentic authenticity of figures like John Wayne and Geronimo. The twelve prints in the series continued his earlier photo-dependant work, in which Warhol used tabloid or newspaper photographs as stencils in order to reproduce the images through silkscreen on canvas. Both artists produce somewhat grotesque parodies of iconic figures, and grainy celebrity photographs are as ubiquitous as B-Westerns or bowling alleys, which are, as Crane points out, a small town-fixture. Unlike Warhol, however, Crane chooses to avoid the specific. His figures are clearly archetypes, rather than individuals; as such, they strangely resist the cult of originality that is often bound up in ever-problematic conceptions of a wild West.
Taming the Myth is Chad Crane’s MFA thesis exhibition and marks the end of his studies at the University of Utah. He earned a BFA from Utah State University. Palmers Gallery, part of the Salt Lake Gallery Association, is located at 378 West Broadway in Salt Lake City.