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Secretly, Frequently Cowboy Drag

Secretly, Frequently Cowboy Drag


This delightful Visual AIDS gallery curated by Anthony Easton explores the men and the myths of the old West.

Visual AIDS utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV-positive artists, and preserving a legacy. Each month, Visual AIDS invites guest curators, drawn from both the arts and AIDS communities, to select several works from the Visual AIDS registry. We couln't help but love their recent gallery from Montreal-based writer, artist, and curator Anthony Easton on the men of the Old West.

In places on the prairies the sandy soil shifts, and the foundations built on that sandy soil shifts along with it. It breaks open holes in the roof or the walls. The holes need to be fixed, or they grow larger, things grow in and around the spaces. Animals find refuge in the spaces made by these holes. Queerness, and life with HIV/AIDS are somewhere between the holes in the roof, and the animals who have found refuge there.

I have been thinking for a while about cowboys and men who have sex with men, I have even been thinking about cowboys who have sex with cowboys — I mean it’s such a cliché, it has been a cliché since The Misfits with Montgomery Clift in the 1950s, one of those tropes of masculinity that has been reclaimed as a kind of protective shell: the attempt to play games, to keep safe (sort of an American remix of how Tom of Finland began his career drawing literal Nazis in his native Finland). Thinking through the acknowledgement that danger is sexy; or in the '70s, cowboys were a remembering of the TV cowboys of the '50s. And how in the last decade they have become a pastiche of an erotic memory of the 70s, an ironic nostalgia, and camp reimagining of a history of memory, memories of sex intermingled of violence, as well as an image that works as an abstraction of the labour of the rural west images of cowboys are often crafted from television and film that depict rodeos, which themselves are a spectacle of the work itself (an erotic reimagining of a filmed performance of an abstraction of actual work.) The following 8 works then push us even further down the rabbit hole — ironic re-workings of re-imaginings of abstractions of what could be considered real.


Bound Confederate Soldier-Postcard From The Edge, 2011, George Towne
Oil on Postcard, 6"x4"

The tying is a ritual, and the body is a ritual, and the dressing is a ritual. Though Towne’s photographs are often small and local examples, tiny portraits of one person in one moment of time — this time travelling re-enactor, of America’s primal scene, suggests that one person can be tied up forever, or that one’s individual moment, of re-enacting memory becomes a global act. In her book about trauma and photography, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag spends much time talking about how images of the civil war were constructed, and she writes about the pre-eminent war photographer, Mathew Brady: “Their status evolved in a more American fashion, with nominal government sponsorship giving way to the force of entrepreneurial and freelance motives." 
Thoughts of all the working class boys in the South who never learned the war was over: think about the rebranding of the flag into a general rebel flag, think about how the abstraction of the bodies are bound to an erotic discourse, think again of what the West means or the South means--and think about this small painting of this anonymous man in an anonymous hotel room, and think about what it means to contain danger. The body of the erotic object is bound to history, to desire, to place, and to capital. The status of the images of that body shift as we expect.


Jae (Urban Cowboy), 1998, Luna Luis Oritz
Color film

It’s a parody. A black reworking of John Travolta’s parody of working class masculinity, a decade after the film, and also another kind of head dress — all of the Egyptian pharaonic drag, the inheritance of Baptist heritage, the make work moments in ball culture, this simple straw cowboy hat — all of it has its own glamour, and its own instincts towards immediacy and fabulousness.


The Death of American Spirituality, 1987, David Wojnarowicz
Mixed media on plywood, 81" x 88", courtesy of the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York

David Wojnarowicz's work often features the use of collage, and the political re-workings of capitalist symbols — an image of two boys kissing on a map of the world, or on a supermarket sign advertising cheap beef. One of his most famous images is a depiction of buffalo being driven over a cliff. David died of AIDS, and that work was about queer folks ignored or broken, literally being driven off a cliff. It is not a subtle image and his other work, had this match of power and obviousness. I like to think of the cowboy as a symbol of hope, riding against those mountains, against the alien influence, against the problem of death. But the cowboy survived by riding the market, literally, his The Death of American Spirituality is made from the Wall Street Journal. Money sneaks in. The symbol becomes one of capital and failure.


The Hidden Pistol, nd., Alex Aleixo
Digital print, dimensions variable, courtesy of the Estate of Alex Alexio

The Brazilian mixed media artist obliquely combines soft-core queer porn, with Hollywood icons, flattening American cultural production into a post-colonial fantasia. The flattening results in a wink and a nod, and because of its digital history, it becomes different, way of compiling collaged information. The cross-national instincts become a discussion of American imperial instincts, the digital collage a working against traditional narratives. That the phallic nature of the gun is hidden, that we don’t see the gun, but must know the gun exists, makes the narrative even more oblique.


Blank Hanky, Bottom Right, 2012, Vincent Chevalier
Body art

The hanky code, a precise signalling of sexual desire, was inherited from masculine cultures, and became a kind of taxonomy that was both serious and heavily joking. It was never intended to be permanent — and it’s symbolism, of a heavily mobile symbol, of infinite variations, moved from the cruising culture of discretion to the explicit. Discretion became another kind of symbol of excess. Chevalier, tattooing the hanky onto the back of a man’s ass, is much more difficult to transfer, it has become a permanent symbol of a labile sexual culture. However, that it is made blank has a kind of child-like glee. You can colour it in, you can make it what you want it to be, but only passively — only on the bottom, prioritizing receptivity, as a way of seeing, but also as a way of looking. Considering that masculine culture pushes tops — that there is still a kind of distrust of bottoming — the blank permanence of this signal can be seen to be a burlesque of how we read masculinity now.


Rio Grande 2, 2013, Jeremy G. Landau
Photograph, 8x20

Landau's landscape work makes one wonder what queer art could be. If we think of queer art as that which has been made by queer people, then it is queer work. If we think about the intersections of biography and space, and queer artists who lived in New Mexico — then again, there is something profound queer in this work. Consider these intersections: O'Keefe’s adobes and flowers; the isolated spareness of Martin’s abstractions that reads as covenantal; even Nauman (regardless of his sexual orientation) making work of loping coyotes in abandoned studios, the violence and un-safety that reminds us to work against nature. Combined with this, the concerns of nature in the photo: why is the scene so unpopulated?, what does the under population of these spaces mean?. The blankness fills the viewer with the desire to speculate. It might be also useful to note that the grasses in the foreground are alive, and that even though nature might work against us — and we work against nature — the hierarchy asserts and reasserts itself. There is queerness in the working towards understanding what the living mean.


Smoke Cowboy (Auto Portrait), 1985, Jimmy DeSana

Dye bleach photo, 10x8, courtesy of the estate of Jimmy DeSana
Cowboy is just another kind of drag, and drag floats through the waking world like smoke through solid surfaces. A punk rough trade reworking of the sissy porn marshmallow worlds of James Bidgood, there is a haunting desire to reinvent the self as either masculine or feminine ideal that one can find in DeSana’s best work.


Cowboys, nd, Patrick Webb
Oil on linen, 30x48

I keep thinking about George Tooker when I look at these works, these highly moral, highly narrative paintings that move between the quotidian and the nightmarish, or perhaps the idea that the quotidian is nightmarish. There are two cowboys here, the first is riding a pale horse, a bleached skill coming in from the far left of the work, the second a small person (perhaps a child), riding a small horse at the bottom of the painting. The rest of the work, tinted red, and profoundly crowded, has a nightmarish quality. The pale rider is now a cowboy, the cowboy once a symbol of virility is now a symbol of great terror. Webb’s other work, often features people in pronounced masks, with a drooping nose, that is like a deflated plague mask, or one of the examples of failed masculinity found throughout the commedia dell'arte (literally — they are named after the figure, Pagliacci, a 19th century operatic reworking of the most famous sad clown, Pierrot — a figure that has become a profound symbol of queer melancholy that settled when the emergency of the plague years became more about maintenance). Seeing Webb’s clown work is to see how the history of masculinity seems to have become a farce when real danger arrives--that the butch theatrics of sex can be collapsed into a very small child on a very small horse, when the plague doctors see the new generation of death. But, also how the performative nature of ourselves, emerges, how the masks we wear, no matter how necessary they seem are both haunting in their failure and comedic in their successes.


Untitled, 2013, Stephen Cox
Oil, 20x30

The first few times I saw this painting, with its subjects crowding in center of the composition, I thought I was looking at a two-headed cattle, an example of the freaks of nature, and so the painting a metaphor that had been largely photographic. But, looking at the work closely, they are two separate calves. The flesh of their bodies rendered formally against their nature, and the simple way Cox paints, the twinned cattle seem to work in favour of a kind doubling metaphor. The two calves, with two heads, instead of one calf with two heads, but tightly together, reworks what flesh means. The metaphor of being close enough to appear to be fused, but being far enough away to be two separate beings is intensified by how small the painting is, how expressive the cattle's faces are, and how they appear in so little ground. There space is anxious. If you look at other paintings of cows as livestock — maybe 18th century Dutch still lives, or 19th century English Pastorals, even at their smallest or tightest, the cattle stand in single or small clutches, with enough sky and land not to overwhelm the rest of the work. The anxiety of bodies that Cox Shows is absent from them. They are also unlike the romantic paintings of his fellow Texans, a genre that has been defined by the galleriest William Reeves, in his catalog for the show Sky and Light in Texas Landscape Painting, "as Texas artists have continuously sought to interpret their visions of this vast and rugged landscape by accentuating brilliant light and luminous skies that characterize the region". Cox's odd colours, his oblique angles, his frustrations of composition, and his claustrophobia queer anxiously the West.


Self Portrait, 1980, Peter Hujar
Gelatin-silver print, 15x15, © The Peter Hujar Archive

The cellist and composer Arthur Russell was painfully shy about his looks, and the heartbreak came from working through that ugliness. Hujar photographer spent some time in the 1970s travelling through the Western United States, often shooting working class men, straight from the job site or the field. There was glamour in shooting in front of a studio backdrop, in how Avedon shot film, and in the abstraction of work. Hujar's merciless self portrait, with the thumbprint nipples, the hairy chest, and the scarred face, outmaneuvers his way through the angst of Russell, and the tourism of Avedon. He absorbs butch, and he makes butch not seem camp or theatrical. The reticence of person-hood, the casual exhibitionism without telling anything, has an outlaw flair. 

Anthony Easton is a writer, curator and artist, now living in Montreal. He grew up in Edmonton.

Click here for more information on Visual AIDS.

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