Step into Petty Cash’s gallery at 114 Forrest Street in Bushwick, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by artist Justin McHugh’s All Cowboys Go To Heaven – a show that lands somewhere between an attempt at high art-assisted nostalgia and a Mojave Desert tourist trap.
“We live in a post-cowboy landscape,” McHugh contends in his statement accompanying the show. “All Cowboys Go To Heaven is my eulogy to the cowboy,” he writes.
While the Wild West aesthetic McHugh uses as his visual language has all but disappeared from the lives of the contemporary, working cowboy, it nonetheless remains very much alive in the American popular imagination. (For proof, look no further than the popularity of the “yeehaw agenda” on social media, in award-winning video games and in the fashion and culture of the mainstream country music industry.)
The same “yeehaw” vocabulary has found a home in the queer community as well – in fact, queer identities have long been present in cowboy culture – through acts like Brandi Carlile or even the lineup featured at 3 Dollar Bill in Bushwick.
At first glance, McHugh’s work demonstrates an excellent understanding of his subject: the color pallets feature blue skies and Marlboro’s characteristic matte red, paired with rugged outlines of the cowboys that will appeal to any fan of art inspired by the Wild West.
Where the work falls short, however, is in its attempt to form a firm critique of patriarchal masculinity – the “ugliness of reality, McHughs calls this – lying beneath the Marlboro Man’s fictional Wild West and which lends its mythological grandeur to these late-20th century advertisements.
“When I began to cut the ‘Marlboro Men’ out of the ads, I started to physically see what was left behind,” McHugh writes. “Remnants of smoke, green pastures and open blue skies were somehow set free from their commercial association. Ghostly silhouettes of the white male cowboys are now unrecognizable and stripped of their power.”
But All Cowboys Go To Heaven struggles to communicate a message that challenges, rather than just admiringly mourns, white patriarchal masculinity through the aesthetics of the Wild West.
Effectively communicating subversive or counter-cultural messages risks failure when not done clearly. The issue in McHugh’s work is not necessarily the imagery he uses to form his message, but is perhaps something deeper: a lack of commitment to its intended message, rooted in a fear of the very same.
Perhaps best exemplifying the struggle plaguing his new show is “You Won’t Forget Me no. 2,” an Andy Warhol-esque portrait of a (somewhat) faceless cowboy, imposed on empty Marlboro Red cigarette packs.
Consider the screen prints of 20th century celebrities and pop culture imagery that rocketed Warhol to commercial stardom. It would be difficult to make the argument that Warhol’s success — the massive price tag on any of his work — was and remains due to his skill as an artist rather than, to at least some degree, the extreme accessibility of his subject matter, or even the novelty value of hanging a gaudy, neon-splotched portrait of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe on one’s living room wall.
Like Warhol, McHugh is intimately familiar with the imagery of the culture he draws upon and, like Warhol, utilizes that familiarity to appeal to potential fans or buyers who will value his work for its aesthetic achievements and for the nostalgia it invokes.
“Cowboy Killer” – a collage piece from McHugh that features the silhouette of a lone cowboy on a horse set against a chaotic background of landscape cutouts and smeared cigarette ash – digs a bit deeper into that canon.
The silhouette immediately recalls James Earle Fraser’s “End of the Trail,” an endlessly-reproduced sculpture that’s read as a reflection on the plight of Native Americans forced to constantly flee from genocide at the hands of the United States government until there will be nowhere else to go. “End of the Trail” is too popular and too important an image for McHugh to be unaware of the implications of the reference he seems to be making.
Race — or, more accurately, non-whiteness — doesn’t show up overtly in the Wild West of All Cowboys, leading the viewer to wonder if McHugh is consciously avoiding the subject. Such an analysis would lead to the uncomfortable observation that he’s raised (the largely white) figure of the cowboy over that of Native American culture, much like the cowboys did themselves.
McHugh’s imposition certainly has a racialized element to it given the literal displacement of Native American communities by towns of white colonists, which for over a century found expression in “Cowboys & Indians”-style movies. It’s not hard to carry that idea over to the assertion made by many feminist theorists that racially-motivated violence and gender-based violence are inextricably tied together through the patriarchal imperative violently assert dominance.
Whether McHugh intended to evoke this idea in “Cowboy Killer” cannot be said with any certainty, however. For example, the apparent reference to “End of the Trail” could simply be McHugh drawing inspiration from a masterwork of mournfulness by an artist with a similar style to his own. But that would be a disappointingly shallow approach if McHugh aspires to communicate a message that feels fresh.
McHugh has a clear familiarity with the visual language of the Wild West — he shows this with his ability to use that language to invoke a sense of nostalgia for a supposed American golden age. This makes it all the more frustrating to see All Cowboys fail to convey a subversive or even concrete message, rather than one that merely fetishizes the very culture the show claims to critique. The show’s ultimate question becomes whether McHugh lacked the right vocabulary to communicate his intended message or, rather, failed to push himself past the internalized messages of patriarchal aspiration that he, like most if not all men in America, have learned since birth.
The conceptual shortcomings of All Cowboys Go To Heaven belie the commercial strength of McHugh’s work. According to the gallery’s founder, Earth Aengel, All Cowboys was his most successful show there over the past year in terms of both attendance and sales.
Perhaps this kind of success, which can also be seen in McHugh’s burgeoning Instagram popularity, is not unconnected from the weakness of his critique of patriarchal masculinity. It’s mainstream, patriarchal cowboy art, available in any Santa Fe gallery catering to retirees looking to spruce up their living room decor.
“All Cowboys Go To Heaven” will be at the Petty Cash gallery at 114 Forrest Street until the end of the month.
All photos taken by David Meehan for Bushwick Daily.
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