Two current exhibitions at the Ellen Noël Art Museum in Odessa have me contemplating the idea of art and permanence. Galleries with a newly restored Tom Lea mural and a retrospective exhibition by Santa Fe-based Billy Schenk present intensely American Western art, a genre whose best practitioners imbue the work with permanence but also nail that depiction of a specific and fleeting moment in time.
A relocated mural by El Paso muralist and illustrator Tom Lea presents a great argument for dedicated galleries for a museum’s permanent collection. As part of the New Deal, Lea created Stampede for the downtown Odessa Post Office. It was dedicated in 1940 and by 2015 was badly in need of conservation. Through a pilot partnership with the USPS the mural was moved, restored and permanently installed in its own gallery at ENAM. The giant composition is decontextualized from its original government space, but through the numerous text panels, preliminary studies, and book illustrations of the source material, the piece has new life in a museum setting.
The mural depicts a man getting flung from a horse during a stampede, with the longhorn about to trample him staring straight out at the viewer with unsettling red eyes. The background is a stylized lightning bolt and a sea of horns, which conveys the desperation of the scene. The cowboy himself is oddly tranquil and his twisted horse slightly (if not unintentionally) comical. As murals often do, this one work best from a slight distance; get too close there aren’t many details to latch on to. I found myself more drawn to the supplementary materials also on display. Next to the completed work is a preliminary black and white gouache-on-panel study, which is more striking and effective in its smaller scale and greater sense of movement. But the overall composition of Stampede is the good kind of permanent; solid and interesting with its steers forever trampling. Although 75 years may not be that old in art terms, the presentation of this entire mural and the accompanying historical context is well done.
There’s also an aura of permanence to Billy Schenk’s 45-year retrospective, in part because visitors who walk in already familiar with the artist’s Pop Western paintings know exactly what they’re going to get. His compositions are often scenes from Hollywood Western films drawn directly from movie stills. But they’re somewhat stagnant, and don’t give us the sense of ever having been alive and kicking, which can be a turnoff for true Western art aficionados. I kept waiting to be surprised by something in the exhibition, or hoping to find some dynamic composition or new play on perspective. It never came.
Schenk takes these typical Western subjects of cowboys, Native Americans, horses and mountains and heavily doses them with stylization and unnatural color, often borrowing directly from the Pop aesthetic—specifically Lichtenstein in his use of captions and Ben-Day dots. Throughout his large canvases and serigraphs, Schenk’s flat picture planes break down into fields of pure color, and the artist owns up to his ‘paint by numbers’ style. He’s got his technique down pat, but I’ve always liked it when Pop Art experiments with scale, which Schenk’s work doesn’t quite deliver.
The artist’s aura and biography might be the bigger draw for some people. He’s a cowboy who seemed to stumble onto the New York art scene in the early 1970s, sold out his first show, wandered through the Velvet Underground’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, then ran back west. (Midnight Cowboy comes to mind as I type this.) Other than his mythos as the ‘granddaddy’ of Pop Western art, throughout his career Schenk’s main selling point has been his use of color, which is certainly on show at ENAM. He uses bold blocks of it with little shading. But his style seems to work best in the details, and especially in his depiction of the rich and abstract textiles of Native Americans seen throughout the exhibition.
The two exhibitions mirror each other well—one artist’s strength is the other’s weakness. I found that the overall composition and display of Tom Lea’s Stampede works better, but doesn’t quite hold up when you look at the details. And Billy Schenk’s most interesting work is in the finer points of his figures, but is lacking every time you take a step back.
Tom Lea and Billy Schenk are on at the Ellen Noël Art Museum.