JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Sunday, August 21, 2005

About Western Art

Talk about American Western Sculpture

1. Defined by subject matter

“Oh, you know. It’s that sculpture about cowboys and Indians.” Cowboys and Indians -- that’s a game little kids play. For some folks the whole field of American Western sculpture is dead right there. To others Western art has souvenir status, because of vacations in the West.

But if you’re a grownup who still admires the culture of the American West, then this art defined by the subject matter and most associated with the prairie frontier in the 19th century. It is almost always naturalistic, narrative, and figurative. That is, the viewer can tell what it is, realizes that some kind of story is involved, and (always in the case of sculpture, which cannot depict landscape) portrays a figure, human or animal. The sculptures that group several figures often depict a moment of high suspense, a crisis, and to some people this is the essence of the Western American bronze -- conflict, violence, impending disaster. Thus the subject is related to the theme of the American Frontier, which is seen as a dangerous place that teaches us about endurance, striving, and cleverness. But many Western American bronzes are about character, a moment of peace, or even safety. This is particularly true of animal portraits.

Today American Western bronzes, as they appear in magazines such as Southwest Art or Art of the West might be about other subjects than cowboys or Indians, Cavalry or fur trappers. The single consistent principle seems to be that they not be about anything industrial (with the possible exception of railroads). Even if the time period is Post-Industrial, the subject should be non-machine, non-factory, non-engine. Western artists love to go to Africa or peasant Europe or Mexico to find subject matter -- donkey carts and peasants -- and it works so long as the rule above is obeyed. No industrial subjects. Lately there have been chickens and even eggs.

When they choose their subjects, artists reveal their inner worlds , unless they are simply working for the market. That, which is not dishonorable is more determined by circumstances than anyone might think. Remington survived by illustrating news or fiction in newspapers and magazines. He was primarily a draftsman and since his access to the frontier was through traveling with the cavalry, much of his work is drawings of soldiers.

2. Who are the Western artists?

If a person tries to find the “first cowboy artist,” it would not turn out to be a European. It’s an ironic fact that the first American equestrian paintings were made on the east coast by 16th century Tlaxcala Indians who attempted to explain to their king about the animals that came from the bellies of huge canoes on the ocean -- animals that appeared to be half-man, half-beast. (Little did they know what a beast Cortez was!) When these double beasts were killed, however, they came apart into a man and a creature. Just for insurance, the Indians hung the heads of the horses alongside the heads of the men.

Probably as soon as the living horses managed to separate themselves from their Spanish riders and escape to the plains, another Indian somewhere whittled from a stick a little horse for his child to play with -- that would have been the first “Indian” sculpture. ({Perhaps culminating in Deborah Butterfield’s life-size horses made of sticks.)

Whether an artist is considered “good” or not may rest on the observer’s appetite for certain kinds of subject. For a while people felt that “originality” -- a subject never “done” before -- was the key to value, but this attitude led to such disasters as bronzes of Indian women giving birth with the head of the infant emerging -- not normally what people want to keep on their coffee table. (Notice the mother was not white.) Some subjects have never been done before because the subject is just a bad idea.

When they choose their subjects, artists reveal their inner worlds , unless they are simply working for the market. Charlie Russell showed a clear preference for peaceful subjects while Remington gravitated towards action. Bob Scriver never did a sculpture of a drunken Indian or of a white man fighting an Indian. Neither was he very interested in contemporary Indians. His white men were mostly rodeo hands, but sometimes oldtimer cowboys, the kind he knew as a kid.

Most people untrained in art begin talking about it by sticking to what the subject matter is. Luckily in American Western sculpture one can always tell what the subject matter is, which is one of the reasons inexperienced connoiseurs like it. Most people can recognize a buffalo or a pack train. Some people will have enough expertise to discuss the accuracy of a particular saddle or gun and others will be expert enough in history to point out whether a sculpture group is staying within the constraints of a particular period. They may know the story the group illustrates and offer contradictions or improvements. This is part of the fun.

Especially in the context of museums and historical societies, the value of American Western bronzes is promoted as a record of a world that is “disappearing,” especially in earlier decades when it was thought that Indians were dying out and that the West would soon be made into a bucolic scene of small farms and towns. Some of this attitude must come from the time when newspapers were unable to print photos and therefore provided illustrations that were drawn, presumably from the actual event, by an artist/journalist. Since much of the reporting was about battles and the hunting of large animals, a bias towards action also became attached to the genre.

A sculpture is much more limited in subject matter than is a painting. One cannot sculpt a mountain or snow falling. The figures are three-dimensional fabrications, usually created either by modeling (putting clay or wax together) or by carving (cutting into a solid substance like wood or stone). Most contemporary Western sculpture is cast in bronze. Usually the bronze is attached to a wooden base, which is friendlier to furniture. It is more usually Indians who carve, either in stone or wood. Perhaps this is because it is considered more “organic” and close to the earth, or perhaps Indians are less likely to have the money for bronze casting.

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