Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 10, 2008 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition pamphlet from which it is excerpted, please contact the Desert Caballeros Western Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


A Brush With Reality

Detailing the West in Contemporary Art

by Susan Hallsten McGarry


Detail is the heart of realism and the fatty degeneration of art.
Clive Bell (1881-1964) English art writer


The realist's ability to deliver a universally identifiable subject is a great strength and source of popularity. On the other hand, this very matter of factness gives realism an accessibility that denies many of the properties associated with what is commonly understood as art.
Alvin Martin
Real, Really Real, Super Real- Directions in Contemporary American Realism, 1981


To say that the 20th-century has been divided on the merits of objective and nonobjective art is an understatement. The debate, ongoing in the American art scene since the 1913 Armory Show, has been heated and downright vicious, particularly in the critical press. Even with the revitalization of contemporary photorealist and narrative modes beginning in the early 1970s, nonobjective art forms and the parade of "isms;' from modernism to minimalism to post-modernism, continues to garner the epithet of Art. Concrete imagery, on the other hand, is still marginalized as mere documentation at best, or passe traditionalism at worst.

Underlying this myopia is the assumption that representational art is purely romantic and has only surface value, with neither underlying content nor abstraction. This fallacy denies not only the skills needed to create a representational work but the aesthetic and philosophical savvy that can take realism beyond reality. Many of the finest realists savor the intense scrutiny and sensitivity they must bring to the phenomenological world and revel in the challenge of summoning all the same formal concerns that abstractionists use to interpret what they see. That enthusiasm translates to viewers who are willing to open their eyes to the marvels before them.

"To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time;' Georgia O'Keeffe once said. And California realist Wayne Theibaud has pointed out, "If you are a realist painter, you finally realize that what you are doing is a tremendous amount of adoption, adaptation and change. Your perceptions are always a direct result of having looked at that object and having attempted to find out as much about it as you could."

The realists in this exhibition are not only preoccupied with the surface of their subjects. Rather their art is a multilayered exploration that excites the senses, the mind, the emotions and the spirit. Today's western realists benefit from the formalistic explorations of the abstract art movement-notably the expressive influences of design, color and texture. However, they add to these formal qualities a profound love or respect for their subjects, a historical appreciation of the subject's details and the spiritual bond that comes from literally re-creating the subject in a separate medium.

Like heroes on a mythological quest, these realists journey into the depths of their subjects in search of information and essences. When they return to the surface, they share that knowledge with viewers in artworks enriched with characteristic detail, which contributes to our understanding of the concrete world today and its relationship to the past.


Rebels with a Cause

While countless 20th-century developments affect the imagery seen here, two trends have had a particularly significant impact. Foremost, these artists are among those who had to choose realism over the predominant trend toward abstract art. Secondly, they learned their craft during a period when mechanical tools and images, such as video and photography, not only competed with their own images but also served as expedients for making art.

What makes an image look real? First and foremost it is drawing. All the artists in this exhibition are highly skilled draftsmen. Drawing is the heart of illusion, in which the goal is to make a flat surface appear three-dimensional. Paul Calle, Rogue Simpson and Bob Shufelt often do finished drawings revealing skills that cannot be covered with paint. "I love working in conte," says Simpson. "It is honest and immediate. You lay it down quickly and there's no color or paint to mask it. You either get it right immediately or you throw it away:'

Becoming a realist in the mid-20th century was in itself a challenge. As avant-garde art trends overtook college faculties, most artists seeking basic skills such as drawing, perspective, anatomy and craftsmanship had to run against the currents by attending commercial art schools, looking for a mentor or setting out on their own journey of learning by trial and error.

Shufelt tells an all too familiar tale. He had studied traditional techniques while in high school and wanted to expand upon the basics once he got into college. His professors saw it differently. "We had royal battles;" he laughs today. "There wasn't any structure to what they taught, and I couldn't make sense out of the assignments. I challenged one professor by doing the assignments my way... and then, to get a grade, doing them his way."

Many of the artists in this exhibit attended commercial art schools and entered the field of illustration before moving into fine art. Among them are James Barna, Don Crowley and Frank McCarthy. Those who took alternative educational routes include Nelson Boren, who honed his drawing skills as an architect, and Rogue Simpson, who studied art in college but was so discouraged by professors who insisted she work abstractly that she took her degree in English literature. Ed Morgan attended the Kansas City Art Institute but his education in engraving and embossing came from working at Hallmark and American Greeting cards for more than a decade.

Others opted for a tradition as old as art itself-namely, seeking out a teacher who does what you want to do. Dave McGary was making jewelry in a high school class in Cody, WY, when he met sculptor Harry Jackson with whom he would study in Italy. William Acheff loved art but went to barber college to make a living. While cutting hair he met California artist Roberto Lupetti from whom he learned the techniques of trompe l' oeil still life. Simpson was pursuing self-studies when she took a class from mentor Robert Shufelt, and Merlin Little Thunder was persuaded to change schools and focus on his own style by Woodie Crumbo Jr. Those who pursued self-studies, including workshops and correspondence schools, are Ray Swanson, George Molnar and Patricia Dobson.


Tools of Persuasion

The confluence of several factors contributed to the emergence of detailed realism in western American subjects. Many artists who worked as illustrators just after World War II reached mid-life in the late 1960s and early '70s, at the same time the market for detailed illustration in national magazines was dwindling. As illustration trended toward greater stylization, many of the realists were ready to bolt from the world of deadlines. They looked westward, including Barna who moved to Wyoming in 1968, and Shufelt, Crowley and McCarthy, all of whom moved to Arizona in the early 1970s.

They arrived in a colorful land filled with intriguing and largely unheralded workers whose lifestyles clung to remnants of the past. The newly developing art market, as yet unjaded by avant-garde biases, was inclined to realism as well as regionalism. It was a period of economic growth and entrepreneurship that found a copacetic symbol in the frontier West, and in particular, the rugged individualism of the American cowboy and the holistic spirituality of the American Indian.

These illustrator/artists were skilled at reading a story, movie synopsis or advertising pitch and then creating an image that conveyed the theme or told the tale. Deadline driven, they drew upon every possible tool available, including the camera. McCarthy is a good example. Highly regarded as an illustrator of action scenes, he brought with him a file of photographs of polo ponies he had taken since childhood. These photographs became a resource for picturing cavalrymen and horse-mounted Indians. "It's impossible to see where a horse's legs are in full gallop without a camera;' he says."Horses have changed over the centuries. I use variations on my photos to create horses that people consider beautiful animals today."

Nothing captures the minutiae of action, dress or portraiture better than the scrutinizing lens of a camera and, according to art historian Linda Nochlin, the "mechanical eye" changed realist movements forever. The belief that the photograph is a record of objective reality remains highly persuasive. And many of today's realists use the look and feel of the photographic image as a means of convincing viewers of the veracity of their presentation. This is especially apparent in the surfaces of many of the paintings in this exhibition, which are so finished, so seemingly void of brush strokes, that the viewer is persuaded to believe that they were hardly touched by human hand.

In truth, however, none of the images was taken directly from a single photograph. Dobson photographs individual pots, then creates her own arrangements, which she lights as she sees fit. Bama takes numerous photos in black and white then makes the colors his own in the paintings. "I don't pose the people;' he says."I just talk a lot and try to make them feel comfortable and relaxed:' Shufelt takes a camera with him as he works cattle, shooting what he can, when he can. "I take hundreds of photos when I'm working the range;' he says, "but the camera can't get in the way... or they ask you to leave." Describing a process used by many of the artists in this exhibition, he gets an idea in mind, then selects from his resource photos those that have the elements he's interested in. "My drawing is a composite of many photographs;' he says.

As all the artists agree, photographs can only record light as it falls on the world from the sun or a light bulb. It documents the appearance of things using a neutral, unimaginative lens. While the school of late 20th-century photorealists use this neutrality as the philosophical underpinning of their work, most realists aver that it is rare for a photograph to capture what the artist wants to say with the image, even when the figures are posed. ''A photograph is dead;' says George Molnar, who sets up photo shoots for his paintings. "I never get exactly what I want. In the painting, I turn cold information into something warm with life."


Masters of Design

Nothing is more real than nothing.
Samuel Beckett

For many a lay person, the importance of "negative space" is a conundrum similar to Beckett's observation. For artists, however, it makes perfect sense. In any composition the spaces surrounding the objects or people are as important as the objects themselves, especially when it comes to balancing detail. The wall behind a still life, the air in between the feathers of a headdress, the holes through a fence or a rock are critical to the overall design.

"The details are what first attracts a person to my work;' says McGary."Then they become curious about everything else-the story, the textures and the abstract qualities that make a good composition."

"Details convince and give great satisfaction, but in truth, all art is abstraction;' says Simpson. ''Abstraction is the basis of realism;' adds Snidow. "Everything in the composition breaks down to positive and negative shapes. The negative space surrounding the Star Mill is as important as the mill. I compose and organize abstractly-even a fraction of an inch on either side of the composition can throw things off. The details come last."

Barna is equally adamant about the importance of surrounding space. "I've spent five decades learning how to put the elements of a picture together. It's something that can't be taught-you earn it with years of experimentation and hard work."

The "voids" that are left in a highly detailed composition are "places of possibility"-areas where, says Calle, "the mind's eye goes, where viewers fill in the details for themselves."

Morgan is a genius when it comes to creating negative space, employing techniques that are much like those found in Oriental designs. In The Red Shirt, a distant spit of land in an ocean of emptiness balances the bevy of activity tightly detailed on the right of the composition. But is it empty? The gaze of the rider encourages us to look into the space and let our imaginations run wild.

The negative space in the upper corners of Bill Acheff's Harvesting the Hot Ones is just as interesting. The "L" shapes with curves from the pot and burden basket are almost identical, but turned on different sides. They "hug" the objects, bringing them into stability and balance and completing the feeling of community between objects and those who used them. "I don't arrange the negative space consciously;' says Acheff "The balance probably comes from my inherent belief that in life one seeks balance."

Negative space is also a place where artists use values such as light and shadow to move your eye throughout the composition. Dobson contrasts dark shadows with brightly illuminated pots to add mystery and melodrama to her compositions. Swanson masterfully modulates his darks and lights in the Piki Bread Maker, drawing us into the scene by the dark in the right-hand corner that moves through a provocative arrangement of bowls and tools to the woman's hands. The darkness on the right highlights the woman's face. Her silhouette on the left sweeps us back into the composition. The same can be said for the encircling shadows in George Molnar's Melissa, a haunting image of a woman held in the palm of a rugged desert landscape.

While it is easy to get caught up in details like the nails on the left fence post in Boren's Horse Blanket, it is the shadows of the nails and the shadowed passages in the hat and chaps, shirt and boots that add movement and drama to the composition. Squint your eyes at McCarthy's Breaking up the Herd and Driving Them to the Edge, and you find that the action is driven by both the powerful diagonal movement of figures and the baroque handling of darks and lights on the buffalo robe, man and animals. The same juxtapositions of angled lines, darks and lights make the figures in Little Thunder's Animal Dancer literally boogey across the surface.

As significant as manipulating values is contrasting textures. The American West is the ultimate land of textures and all the artists in this exhibition are drawn to replicating the tactility of the people and the place. The progression of Dave McGary's art over the past decade has been to challenge himself with ever greater tour de force reproductions of fur, feathers, leather, buckskin and beadwork. He depicts it not only in the surface treatment of metal but in color as well. "When I attended a Sun Dance I was astounded by all the colors. I couldn't ignore them;" says McGary.

For McGary, dress and accouterments make the man or the woman, adding scope and pageantry that contrast with the smoothly delineated faces of the woman and child in Strong Hearts, for example. The same can be said for Bama's people-his sitters occupy vignetted space where they are defined by rugged hands, wrinkled or refined faces and the personae conferred by clothing.

One way of emphasizing the importance of realistic textures is through comparisons. A loosely created passage such as the background vegetation in Don Crowley's The Cape Dancers and in The Blue Buckskins makes the women and their regalia appear all the more detailed. Scale accomplishes the same goal. Nelson Boren's larger than life paintings have a heightened sense of reality, as if we are scrutinizing the textures through binoculars. Merlin Little Thunder's tiny paintings, to the contrary, must be viewed at close hand in order to absorb the intimacy of the stories he tells. That intimate experience is also important to Ed Morgan, who has suppressed the urge to work larger so that the viewer is compelled to examine details as small as the stitching on a bag or a broken bead on a vest.

But all this detail and texture is useless unless combined in a way that satisfies the visual experience. "I just want to paint the best painting I can;' says Crowley. It sounds simple enough, but when a million details must be organized beautifully, the challenge goes beyond the abilities of an amateur. "I've been working on it all my life and I'm still not thoroughly satisfied;' he adds.


All About Time

Although many of the themes in this exhibit are universal and have parallels throughout art history -- be they still lifes of material culture, horsemen in action, native peoples, fantasy, or laborers -- there is something undeniably 20th-century about what you see here. What makes it so? Unlike Charlie Russell who would have turned the clock back if he could, these artists, even when they depict history, do so within the context of late 20th century culture. They live in their times, and their art is often about time.

Paul Calle reads histories, attends rendezvous re-enactments and surrounds himself with artifacts and reproductions. His models, however, are real people, mostly modern-day mountaineers, who dress the part and play the role of earlier times in rendezvous that take place across the West.

"I'm not painting a specific mountain man;' says Calle, "I'm painting what might have been and the countless trappers whose names were never recorded. Just like the Renaissance artists who read the Bible and painted scenes from the life of Christ 1,500 years after He walked this earth, I read western histories and journals and interpret them within the context of my life and times." The Indian portrait taken from an old photo combined with a 20th-century re-enactor in In the Beginning Friends gives vision to Calle's philosophy. So too does his career of painting both astronauts stepping into the frontier of space as well as mountain men trekking into a frontier two hundred years earlier.

Gordon Snidow expresses a similar position when depicting today's cowboy. Although he was inspired as a young boy by the art of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington that he saw at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, Snidow grew up knowing he would tell his own stories. "I want to share my view of the West, not someone else's," he says. "I paint the West that I've encountered. I choose my subjects based on my own experiences."

In fact, many of the people you will meet in the paintings in this exhibition are real -- either contemporaries of the artists or people recorded in histories. And when they are not real -- like Morgan's Little People or Little Thunder's Spirits -- the use of convincing detail makes us believe them to be real.

Barna points out that he has never considered himself a "western artist ... I didn't intend to become a recorder of the West ... but that's where I ended up living and I paint the people who live here." The portraits of Crowley, Molnar and Swanson are taken from encounters with people at powwows and other gatherings and often include families they have painted over the past two decades, recording life spans stretching from infancy to maturity.

When you get to know people through painting them, you dig deeper than the wrinkles in their skin, Swanson suggests. "You understand why they have that twinkle in their eye." He tells about meeting the Arizona clan, whose family members he has painted for over a decade. "I met Bill Arizona while he was sunning himself next to his hogan. We talked for about six hours, then he introduced me to his wife Martha and their nine children. The youngest boy, Paul, later married Nora and they had four boys before Arvena, their first daughter, was born. I happened to be in the area when Nora came home from the hospital with the baby in a cradleboard -- I photographed the mother and child under a juniper tree. That scene was the first of many paintings I've done of Arvena, who is 11 years old today."

As with a growing child, time affects everything, changing the physical landscape, as well as that of the spirit, body and mind. "I don't go out to the reservation as much as I used to;' Swanson says."I used to wander around and just let things happen. Now I tend to set up situations or work from past material."

The evolution of the West from a largely agrarian to industrial society is undeniable and in many cases we see that change recorded here. "The cowboy in the Last Star Mill sits on the edge of time, he's watching the sunset of an era;' says Snidow. Little Thunder researches legends and dance lore because it is being forgotten. "I attend the dances and ask the elders about the protocol and songs because someone needs to record them for the next generation."

To a large extent all art is an act of leaving a mark for future generations -- a sign that the artist was here, was listening and interpreting the details surrounding him or her. The writing, pictographs and petroglyphs in Snidow's Yesterday's Graffiti and in McCarthy's In the Land of the Ancient Ones are references to the need throughout history to communicate to others through imagemaking, whether representational or abstract. "When I painted those petroglyphs I could feel the character of the people who made them;' says Snidow.

Similarly, the art of to day's western realists ultimately leaves a mark that tells much about the late 20th century and the values that hold meaning in our culture. Chief among these values is an appreciation of the profound relationship between people, animals and the land-a relationship brought into sharper focus by the space age that has catapulted humankind into inhospitable landscapes minus the elements of air and water necessary for life. Little Thunder expresses the relationship in works that draw parallels between humans and plants and animals. All of life is spiritual, he says, and the details are not random, each has meaning. "When you paint an image on a horse, you are singing a holy song. Indians earned their paint -- earned the materials to make medicine."

"My Plains Indians friends are willing to help me get the details of their legends and histories correct because they want the stories to be as accurate as possible;' concludes Dave McGary."When I tell them that my bronzes will be around for a long, long time, certainly longer than our lifetimes, they know that art has the power to record the truth and correct misconceptions. Smallpox and other diseases once decimated whole tribes and their histories. Art is one way of keeping those details forever alive."

About the author

Susan Hallsten McGarry has been writing about the arts of the American West for two decades. She served as editor and chief of Southwest Art magazine from 1979 to 1997. Her numerous articles and essays put western American art in a historical perspective for collectors across the country.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above exhibition pamphlet essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 10, 2008, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on May 26, 2008. Ms. McGarry's essay pertains to A Brush with Reality: Detailing the West in Contemporary Art, which was on view at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum November 7, 1998 - January 17, 1999.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Susan Hallsten McGarry and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Resource Library.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.