The annual Coors Western Art Exhibit has been going on for a good 30 years now and, like a lot of things at the National Western Stock Show, its value comes from the fact that it never really changes.
The lineup of artists has expanded and diversified, and so has the kind of art that is included. But the scenery is on repeat and just as you would expect it to be. Cows and cowboys, horses and their wranglers, big skies and imposing buttes, skulls, cacti and the occasional farm tractor.
The show does try to stay current by gently raising some environmental concerns with its paintings and sculptures of lands once open, or once-abundant animals that are now threatened by development or pollution. But it avoids causing any real trouble or going deep on such topics as rural poverty, digital isolation or livestock exploitation. The spin is all romance. Loneliness is more like solitude, grueling work is duty, roosters and steer are royalty.
This is art as it used to be, housed at a stock show that celebrates a lifestyle hanging on strong despite a changing world. I want to say that it is stuck but that would be wrong. You can’t be stuck if you are not trying to go anywhere.
That, I suppose, is the reason people like the Coors Western Art Exhibit and the reason I see it every year. There is honor in holding the line, a comfort in consistency, even in this era when looking back without regret might be considered a crime. I could argue for progress at this annual happening but that would be like insisting your family members change their political views during Thanksgiving dinner. It ain’t gonna happen, and so you love them for who they are.
Walking into the show can be a lot like joining a family holiday, for better and worse. Everyone greets you with a hello and some good advice on how to take in the offerings. They encourage you to vote for the People’s Choice Award. In my case, the guide chatted me up about my No. 1 pick and asked why, specifically, I liked it; she seemed genuinely interested.
Then there are the artists themselves whose works are hung on the walls and popped on top of podiums. Familiar names of the genre abound, like Willam Matthews, Jill Soukup, Quang Ho, Elsa Sroka, Don Coen and Daniel Sprick, all seriously talented painters with their own trademark moves. Sroka has a way with Holsteins. Ho indulges in dreamy landscapes. Matthews paints cowboys with quirky personalities.
Like relatives, some of the artists in this show can, indeed, get on your nerves. The names of many of the paintings read like corny dad jokes, and enough can be enough real fast, i.e., a portrait of a longhorn titled “I Would Steer Clear,” a bronze of an irritated hog called “Before Coffee,” or one of bats with the name “Hot Wings.”
But there are pleasant, if small, surprises in the lineup, which has been curated by Rose Fredrick since 1996. Part of that comes from the diversity of media. Oils, acrylics and watercolors, photography and prints, pencil and pastels. The sculptures are metal and ceramic. One artist, Chris Maynard, makes two-dimensional collages from the feathers of turkeys, cranes, pheasants and other birds. Other contributors combine techniques. The works by Dan Chen, this year’s featured artist, are part sculpture, part painting and use things like bronze, wood, lucite, glass and elk skin all at one time.
You can gravitate toward the ones you find sincere and avoid anything you find too cheeky. I am a fan of Stephanie Hartshorn’s large oil paintings of fading small towns, of Joseph McGurl’s and Linda Lollegraven’s spare and realistic landscapes, which avoid the sentimentality trap of Western art, and of the vistas created by David Griffin and Gordon Brown because they hold just enough respect for the great painters of the old West without imitating them.
For my favorite, I chose Maeve Eichelberger’s “Reflections of a Sunset,” a three-dimensional depiction of a saddle, because I like the way she employs contemporary materials, in this case hand-formed mirrored Plexiglass, into a shape that fits with the show’s horsey theme. It is one of the few pieces that felt new.
The saddle is not for everybody, but neither is the Coors Western Art Exhibit as a whole. It is as square as an art show can be in 2023, indulgent, un-self-conscious, under-edited, folksy but not in the way of trendy folk art, all-American but not rootsy Americana.
But it does not aim to be cutting edge, and it is unfailingly popular. The art sells briskly and it can make for an expensive souvenir of the stock show. Prices above $10,000 are not uncommon, though there are likely deals to be had.
The event does have a good heart. I’m not quite sure what it means for art to uphold “Western values,” as the exhibit’s literature brags this work does. People can take that in a lot of ways. But it never rises to propaganda and proceeds do help fund the National Western Scholarship Trust, which awards grants to students of agriculture, veterinary science and medicine. Helping artists make a living while advocating for things like food safety and animal well-being is a redeeming trait.
While the Coors Western Art Exhibit doesn’t do everything that art can do, it does a few of the things art does best. With their clever paintbrushes, these artists do convey ideas and emotions that are hard to express in words. They get at what it feels like to be part of the ranching eco-system, to live among animals and to work the land. In that way, the show can add mightily to a trip to the stock show.
It understands what visitors desire when they line up at the gates of this 117-year-old event, their need to connect to the traditions of the region and the country. And it doesn’t try to change a thing.
If you go
The Coors Western Art Show is open daily during the National Western Stock Show and is included in a regular grounds ticket. The event runs through Jan. 22.
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