The western cinematic landscapes and cowboy protagonists of Billy Schenck’s art aren’t just a fantasy, it’s in his DNA. The artist, who spent part of his childhood riding horses and herding cattle in Wyoming, is known as, in his words, one of the “grandfathers” of Western pop art. Although he spent part of his early career in New York, Schenck, who now lives in New Mexico, fully embraces the western lifestyle he portrays. In the mid-1970s, he took the cowboy lifestyle one step further when a ranch manager taught him to bareback and saddle bronc. The only problem? “I was terrible,” he says. “I was almost getting killed, falling from one horse after another. It was really frustrating because rodeo was in my blood.
Later in life, Schenck got back on his horse, literally. With the encouragement of a local rancher, he began team paddling and sorting ranches. This time he was much more successful: he even won a World Ranching Championship in 2009. He still ranches at local shows and is proud to say he pulled off 10 perfect runs in one daytime. (In sorting ranches, a rider tries to move ten cattle from paddock to paddock, in numerical order. A perfect race requires herding cattle in sequence in 60 seconds.) Schenck, now 70 , says, “I’m very proud of the fact that I can be so old and still be competitive and knock people’s socks off on occasion.
Schenck’s true love for the American West – its culture, its iconography, its landscapes – is on full display in his two concurrent exhibitions in Utah: Schenck’s Utah: A Land Less Frequented in the modern West and Billy Schenck: Myth of the West at the Art Museum of Southern Utah.
Schenck’s Utah is the first exhibition of his career devoted entirely to landscape art. In the first decades of his career, landscapes are only in the background of his figurative paintings and legends. The spectacular red rock mesas of southern Utah, however, have always been integral to Schenck’s work. He says he’s been “inspired by the Utah landscape since almost day one, 52 years ago.” In the early 2000s, he began to work on landscapes without characters. Why? “Just to see if I could do it,” he said. Modern West gallery director Shalee Cooper was drawn to Schenck’s distinctive interpretations of Utah’s geography and encouraged Schenck to exhibit his landscape works for this exhibition.
The paintings and serigraphs of Schenck’s Utah feature dramatic shadows and beautiful lonely stretches of quiet desert. The scenes are quintessentially Utah, but up close the sharp divisions between colors and shapes seem more surreal – in “Caution Hot Cows,” for example, spindly black tree branches contrast with white, jagged clouds. like puzzle pieces. Some works, like “Late Day Monsoons”, feature dark shades of brown and gray; others bring an unexpected dynamism to stretches of arid land.
To create his paintings, Schenck begins with a road trip – to Monument Valley, Arches National Park, or other desert locations in southern Utah that catch his eye. He photographs rock formations and landscapes, then returns to the studio, where he uses a slide projector to review the images for inspiration. “I go through the carousels until I find a group — maybe three, five, 10 slides — and just see how they’re going to match up,” he says. It starts with the foreground – usually a dramatic rock formation or sand dune – moves to the middle ground, then the background and ends with its dramatic skyscapes, expanding the color palette as it goes. This process – part composite of real locations, part exploration of his own imagination – accounts for the familiar yet otherworldly quality of his work.
At the Art Museum of Southern Utah, Billy Schenck: Myth of the West is a career-spanning retrospective that includes works from various points in Schenck’s career spanning more than four decades. The exhibition, which includes 25 paintings and three serigraphs, illustrates some of Schenck’s trademarks: a colorful and striking reductive style, quirky humor and startling interpretations of classic Western iconography.
Western myth links Schenck to his varied influences. His idiosyncratic style comes from many directions – the marriage of text and image of Roy Lichtenstein’s legendary paintings, the methodology of the Photorealists in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the subject matter of classic Spaghetti Westerns. (After first seeing Sergio Leone Once upon a Time in the West, Schenck said to himself: “I must try to do in painting what this guy did in film. At SUMA, Schenck’s work is associated with one of his main influences: Andy Warhol. by Warhol Cowboys and Indians includes 10 prints and four test prints from Warhol’s last project in the 1980s. learned from the pioneers of pop art in New York. Michael Duchemin, director of the Briscoe Museum in San Antonio, first associated Schenck with Warhol, linking Western artists to the greater tradition of pop art. (“I thought it was great for my career. It won’t affect Andy too much one way or another,” Schenck jokes.)
For Schenck, Western myth was an opportunity to follow the evolution of his work over the decades. That memory, however, didn’t slow him down – in fact, it only led him to more inspiration. “I have ideas coming out of my ears,” he says. “I can’t even begin to catch up to them at this point.”
For more information on these exhibits, visit the Modern West and SUMA websites. To subscribe to salt lake magazine to learn more about life in Utah.