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."


Thursday, July 19, 2007


For a while now I haven’t taken a friendly walk through the Western art mags, so I thought I’d give a catch-up tour today. Southwest Art: Fine Art of Today’s West (July, 2007), Art of the West: For All Fine Art Collectors (July/August, 2007) and Wildlife Art, The World’s Foremost Wildlife Art Magazine (May/June, 2007).

First some logistical orientation. Most disciplines that lean heavily on culture can be sorted from “low” to “high.” For instance, “low” religion is folk, maybe superstitious, informal, rural, inspired rather than learned, not usually wealthy. “High” religion depends upon education (theology, a “learned” ministry with graduate degrees), wealth and architecture (beautiful furnishings, expensive supplies), and high status in the larger society. All up and down the scale it is possible to accumulate enormous power, to be vulnerable to corruption, or to be captured by the status quo, habits and assumptions that haven’t been challenged for a long time, and the interests of a class of people who derive power from believing that the way things are is the way things ought to be.

Art is very much like that. It can be spontaneous and charming, like grandpa’s whittling, mom’s scrapbooks and the kids’ refrigerator art. It can be as mammoth and intimidating and globally famous as European masterpieces. And then there’s art of the American West. Cowboy art, some assume. The panorama landscape, think others. And a few love charismatic animals of every kind and continent.

For a long time Europe and the closed “academies” that controlled the big shows dominated American art. Then the focus shifted again, thanks partly to some intense characters and partly to war in Europe that pushed some of them to New York City. Then we had Pollock and deKooning and all that shocking abstract stuff. (It’s surprising that all this “modern” art is so old now.) American Western art formed partly in reaction to that, both the snobbery and the puzzlement of figuring out out why anyone would want a painting of “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

Going naively and happily along their own trails, some artists used fine European technique to describe a striking new world, maybe Taos and environs. The living was cheap, shacks were available, the subject matter was intriguingly anthropological. Farther north the clearance of the prairie was underway and artists sat in for photographers, until cameras were ready to pick up the story.

More recently, there were a few ways to save the ranch: rodeo, writing or painting. These WERE cowboys so they painted their own world. Eventually they banded together into the Cowboy Artists of America. All the founders are dead now. There was a major renaissance when the east coast magazine illustrators joined up. They’ve dropped the second “A,” maybe because some of the best artists of the American West are now Chinese, classically trained. They mix yurts and Chinese peasants in with their tipis and Mexicans.

Actually, the Society of Animal Artists formed a little earlier than the CAA. They were sports illustrators at first, calendar artists and so on. They came out to the West to look for animals and backgrounds -- pick up some ideas. Then the natural history history types, the ecologists and buffalo huggers took an interest.

With this as our map “rose,” let’s walk along.

Southwest Art says it is paying tribute to sculptors in this issue, and puts a splendid bronze eagle gripping a salmon on the cover. (The patina helps indicate this is a “bald” eagle, which fishes rather than catching mammals like a golden.) As usual, much of the emphasis in all the articles is about the artists: where they grew up, how they got the bug, how they educated themselves, what they feel about it all. But there are two interesting articles that hinge on materials: one about sculptors working in stone at the Purple Door Studio (I love the photo of the group all wearing their respirators) and one about a couple, Allen and Patty Eckman, who have taught themselves paper casting, lately going to a style of shredded, fringy paper that lends itself to fancy dancers with ribbons swirling or horses with manes flying.

The featured bronze artist is Ken Rowe, who did the eagle on the cover. He came to portraits of animals through taxidermy (one classic path in the West) and --to my eye -- is pretty damn good. Joe Brubaker is a mixed media guy, a California academic fabulist who begins with a wood figure, then goes to ... somewhere in his mind. It’s haunting and means to be.

Advertisers tend to be galleries that pick up on the main stories, rather like fashion mags, but there is always abiding the same scatter of “real” cowboy artists, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time optimists, and historic paintings -- historic both in subject matter and in terms of when they were painted. My own love is always the strong color-work (I don’t even care whether you can tell what is, so long as the colors are wonderful) and there is a lot of it in this issue, some of it with pastels rather than oil paint. Melinda Hall uses it to be witty; Tony Saladino makes it schematic.

The real capper, saved for last, is a dandy: a marble portrait of an octopus, both formally patterned and realistically organic, fifteen feet tall and thirty-five feet long -- not intended for the average sitting room. By Bela Bacsi (there are accents on the first e and the second a), it won the Gold Medal for Sculpture at the California Art Club’s 96th annual Gold Medal Exhibition. Southwest Art makes an Award of Excellence at this show, which went to Brian Blood for a Carmel landscape.

Art of the West is a more modest enterprise, Minnesota rather than Denver based. It is more classically “Western” with scenery and guys on horseback. The painting is not quite so adept, but there is an article on one of the true greats, Maynard Dixon, a man who really sets the high mark for Western painters. Another article is about David Drummond, an elvish-looking fellow who paints Lake Powell and iris in watercolor in a way transcendently pure. He attributes this to a previous career in astrophysics, specializing in optics.

The back page in this mag goes to Bill Frazier, the only attorney in Montana who really knows art. He speaks common sense and practical wariness for both artist and customer. This time, remarkably, both he and Allen Duerr and Thomas Tierney, the publishers, were saying, “Beware of sharks.” Today’s enthusiasm for parking money in artwork has been “blood in the water” for a lot of fast talkers and grifters. Believe them!

Wildlife Art is the most low-rent and this issue’s cover really looks it. One would expect it on the rack next to True West. With the cover off, it would be harder to distinguish from the others. There’s that Terpening again, not so much a man as an industry. A nice lady sculptor of Cowboys and Indians, J. R. Eason. A guy (Bob Boomer) who does Indians in wood. B.C. Nowlin who has developed a shimmering style of Indians just leaving. Don Weller: immaculately skillful watercolors of cowboys on horses. Karen Cooper who works on (gulp) not quite black velvet, but black sanded paper which comes out about the same. Susan von Borstel who paints on slabs of stone. You’ve gotta have a gimmick.

The editorial comment is from Keith Hansen, who just LOVES horses but has nothing to contribute the wrenching controversy over horse slaughter in the US. What about old, broken, blind horses? Oh, look over there at that cute little colt! (He’s on the California coast.)

In summary, Southwest Art is the highest on the sophistication ladder. Art of the West frankly takes the burghers’ point of view in a pitch for good commerce. (They publish “Artfacts Newsletter” bimonthly, including auction info, bios, and so on -- the same stuff you could get from a website like “” but handy if you’re a geezer who hates keyboards.) Wildlife Art is riding drag, a little dusty, but someone’s gotta do it.

Keep them dogies movin’!

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