Pop Meets West

Thirty years after Schenck’s painting adorned first Fall Arts Festival poster, he’s back.

When the art of the Wild West met the art of 1970s New York City, few guessed they would get along.

But the mix worked for Billy Schenck, whose unlikely inspiration to combine West and East, old and new has driven his popular work for more than 40 years. It’s also earned him the distinction this year of being the first artist to have his work featured twice on the poster for the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival.

Schenck pioneered art that has its feet on the ground of the cowboy frontier and its head in the clouds of 20th-century pop. Having made that incongruous stretch, he calls himself “a schizophrenic in two worlds,” and admits that “I run from one extreme to the other side.”

At the time of Schenck’s first show of pop Western in New York, when he was 24, “I was scared, I was terrified” about the reception, he said. But it caught on: “Everything was sold, it was beyond my wildest imagination.”
Mark Tarrant, whose Altamira Fine Art gallery handles Schenck’s work in Jackson, said “he is the first artist I am aware of who took the concepts and conceits of pop art to Western themes and subjects—and he struck gold.”

Schenck was fresh out of the Kansas City Art Institute when he went to New York and was inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. He initially did a series of pop-inspired paintings that mimicked Renaissance church ceilings. But there was another influence pushing Schenck: Though he wasn’t actually a cowboy, he had grown up with horses and cattle. Schenck’s catalyst appeared in the form of a cowboyphilic Italian movie-maker.

“I considered myself a contemporary artist … but while in art school I began seeing those spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone,” he said, recalling Clint Eastwood flicks like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “A Fistful of Dollars.” “It conceptually got my attention, and I thought, ‘this is such a departure in the Western movie genre,’ and I instinctively, intuitively understood that this was earthmoving.

“I wondered if I could do something similar in paint, and I made a decision to begin messing with Western art.”

Before Schenck there was nothing like Schenck. Western art had always been realistic and nostalgic. Not Billy Schenck. His subjects were those of Russell and Remington but his eye was that of Warhol and his palette came from Peter Max. He adopted Western art tropes but smiled at the melodrama. Schenck reproduced Western iconography in what he calls “graphic comic book imagery … paint-by-numbers from Western movie stills.” But, he said, “I made it more sophisticated.”

Schenck didn’t try to make things look real but instead created a reductive style that joined pop with photorealism, simple drawings with colors layered bright and flat, with no shading.

He replaced the apple pie Americanism of his predecessors with a wry humor and dizzy irony, combined respect for Old West themes with goofy contrasts of man and nature, venerable and new, traditional and quirky. He calls it “putting all the cliches in a blender.”

“Absurdity is something I love, irony,” he said. “I’m definitely messing with all these cliches in Western history. I love playing with the mystique, the mythology—but I’m also reverent.

“I’m a big romantic, but I’ll turn right around and give you a wink.”
Schenck’s is a “world of mythical Western life and legend, deeply serious landscapes, photography, historical images, hysterical caption paintings,” Tarrant said, “and, recently, a series of dot paintings paying homage to Lichtenstein and Warhol.”

Schenck lived and worked in Jackson Hole for “33 summers” before settling in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Before he left he joined Connie Davis and Dick Flood to create what has become one of the country’s biggest art gatherings, Jackson’s Fall Arts Festival. In 1985 the first festival used his painting Waco for its poster. This year Schenck is back with poster art that shows how his style has stayed true to its roots but also how it’s developed over three decades. 13 Minutes From Eternity shows a mounted cowpoke, rifle in hand and Mount Moran behind him, glancing nervously back at something—something unseen—coming up from behind.
13 Minutes From Eternity will be on display during the festival in the lobby of the Wort Hotel. The 50-by-50-inch oil on canvas will be auctioned September 19 at the 20th annual QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction on Jackson Town Square.

Decades into his artistic life, Schenck is “vigorously exploring palette and composition,” Tarrant said, and “is making the best work of his career.”
A Schenck oil the size of 13 Minutes From Eternity is likely to come with an estimate in the $50,000 range.