On a recent visit to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming I found myself drawn to their contemporary art selection. Here are four of my favorites:
Artist David Bradley is a Minnesota Chippewa Indian whose work often comments on the commercialization of Native cultures in a humorous way. Here, he portrays Tonto, the Indian sidekick of the Lone Ranger, a popular TV character from the 1950s. Western clichés and Indian stereotypes fill the canvas: Buffalo Gals, ghost riders, and Tonto himself. Traditional Native American culture survives in a few scattered beads, pottery shards, and petroglyphs, while the widespread symbol of today’s American Indian the casino, is prominently represented by signs and a deck of cards.
The painting is based on a famous 1897 work by the influential French artist Henri Rousseau called “The Sleeping Gypsy” (shown below). For Bradley, the lion is transformed into this mountain lion. In the foreground, that sleeping gypsy is now a sleeping Tonto. If you look on the left-hand side, you’ll see the Lone Ranger peeking out from a rock.
By referencing iconic works of European art like “The Sleeping Gypsy,” Bradley asserts his right to tap into artistic traditions beyond his roots and adopts it for his own.
Michael Scott is a contemporary artist who currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Scott finds inspiration for his subjects and style in history, art history, and the western landscape and people near his home. In “The Menagerie” Scott imagines Buffalo Bill as the caretaker for an exotic bird menagerie. Symbolism for each bird references the personality of Buffalo Bill, who stands as the “ring leader” of the birds in the painting. Note the hummingbird at Buffalo Bill’s left ear, which was a symbol used by 17th century European artists to signify the fleeting nature of life. The peacock is associated with vanity and therefore reflects one quality of Buffalo Bill. The composition and subject reference a major American 18th century painting by Charles Wilson Peale that depicted a self-portrait of the artist in his museum (shown below).
James Bama left a successful illustration career and his New York home for the solitude of the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming and life as a Realist painter. Often overlooked in the scope of American art, Bama’s paintings hold their own when compared to other outstanding American Realists.
Bama has portrayed a contemporary Indian who maintains a relationship with the past but has to find his place in the white man’s world. The message on the wall behind the subject echoes the artist’s theme of the nonacceptance of Indians in mainstream American society.
Buckeye Blake’s painting, The Wild Rose, ia based on world-champion bronc rider Fannie Sperry Steele and her trick horse Sultan. Steele is a rodeo legend from Montana who was the first woman inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. “I love the West as well as its history,” Blake says. “It’s a delicate balance in a hard land, an epic nuance in an incredible orchestration of light, shadow, color, and space—to begin to capture such a symphony is both sacred and humbling.”