State of the Art: Western

Newer artists give traditional subjects mass appeal.

By Kate Hull

Noted artists have celebrated the Western United States for centuries, capturing its stoic cowboys and wide-open spaces. Early 19th-century masters like Charles Russell and Frederic Remington set the standard and encapsulated the early frontier with Native American cultures, Old West cowboys, and rugged landscapes depicted in striking detail.

Fast forward to 2016. The Western art genre is still rooted in works of the masters, but a new crop of contemporary artists is bringing a welcomed branch to the already expansive genre.

Jackson Hole bustles with galleries lining Town Square and enthusiastic art lovers visiting all year long, but in September, the art scene comes alive during Fall Arts Festival. The spirited Jackson Hole Art Auction is one of the week’s climatic events and is celebrating its tenth year September 16 and 17.

“There are some great living artists, however, who are doing more of a modern, contemporary take on Western art that is really appealing for the younger collectors.”
– Jill Callahan, Jackson Hole Art Auction Coordinator

The auction principals, Trailside Galleries and Gerald Peters Gallery, bring a wide variety of genres, including wildlife, sporting, landscape, figurative, and Western to the event. In the past few years, the Western genre has welcomed contemporary artists as well.

“There is certainly a lot of diversity within Western art,” said Jill Callahan, auction coordinator. “Western masters such as Remington and Russell who began the Western art movement are still very much sought after. … There are some great living artists, however, who are doing more of a modern, contemporary take on Western art that is really appealing for the younger collectors.”

One such artist, Logan Maxwell Hagege, is creating a new piece to be a part of the auction’s Top Tier Competition, in which a panel of museum curators will judge the work and award a $10,000 cash prize.

“Hagege is fairly young and a living artist who is taking a really contemporary approach to Western art,” Callahan said. His work explores the American Southwest with angular images and captures sprawling, beautiful, and arid landscapes and harsh environments that engulfed the lives of early Native Americans.

Go in Shadows, a 30-by-40-inch oil on linen, showcases Hagege’s ability to blend figures with the landscape. A part of the 2015 auction, Hagege described the piece’s style as “balancing all of the elements in the composition” to create “a sense of harmony.”

In contrast to the historical accuracy and photorealism seen in traditional masters’ work, Hagege is part of a new group exploring Western art from a different angle.

Louis Cushman, a collector who splits his time between Texas and Jackson Hole, has been collecting Native American antiques, along with cowboy and Western memorabilia, for more than thirty years. Cushman worked on a ranch in Montana as a teen and also owned a ranch with his twin brother in Driggs, Idaho, allowing the rich Western culture to resonate and come through in his art collection. A piece of Hagege’s work hangs in his Houston home, alongside an eclectic collection of contemporary and abstract impressionistic art.

“I was instantly drawn to the contemporary although certainly not abstract Native American feel of Logan’s work,” he said. “I found Logan’s style to be unlike any other Western artist I had previously seen, and felt that it would complement and contrast with some of the more traditional Western art I own, including wildlife and landscape, along with antiques in general.”

Beginning in 2015, the art auction adjusted to the changing market by expanding the event into two days. The first day of the auction features artists whose work is very sought after, but at a lower price point hoping to reach a younger market of buyers. The first day of the auction will showcase names like wildlife painters Bob Kuhn and Ken Carlson, and Native American and cowboy artist Frank McCarthy.

Inside Astoria Fine Art Gallery, owner Greg Fulton has also watched the Western market shift in the ten years since he opened the gallery along Jackson’s Town Square.

“What used to be mostly a traditional art market is today, I think, a more half-traditional and half-contemporary market,” Fulton said. “Our gallery has followed suit.”

The artists that Astoria represents now range from painters who grew up in the intermountain West to a global group of artists from Europe who depict Western culture and wildlife.

“The traditional side has not died or gone away,” he said. “It has stayed strong, but we have added this other element and this new group of enthusiasts. Today’s Western art world has bright colors, contemporary motifs, and abstract designs.”

Each Jackson gallery features a group of artists, from sculptors to painters, unique to the gallery’s individual style or niche, from the contemporary cubism style of David Jonason inside Mountain Trails Gallery to the impressionist wildlife work of Mary Roberson at Altamira Fine Art.

“It isn’t trying to cut the pie into smaller slices. As a whole, the Western art ‘pie’ grew,” Fulton said. “There is still even more room for growth in those regards. More artists from throughout the world, far away from the West, are embracing Western subjects.”

To celebrate Astoria’s ten-year anniversary, the gallery is hosting ten shows this summer, ranging from traditional Western to contemporary sculptures.

Inside Astoria, the change in style is apparent. On one side of the gallery, bronze wildlife sculptures from celebrated artist Richard Loffler show visitors a leading traditional artist. Loffler’s large-scale sculptures depict wildlife in striking detail and are displayed at museums across the country, from the National Museum of Wildlife Art to New Jersey’s Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum. On the other side of the gallery, Joshua Tobey celebrates the whimsical side of wildlife sculpture with modern designs.

“The people who come to our gallery to buy Tobey’s work are both traditional and contemporary collectors,” Fulton said. “Although his work features wildlife and animals, these people are not always wildlife art collectors. Tobey has popularized contemporary wildlife sculptor from coast to coast.”

Tobey was named as a featured artist for the 2014 Fall Arts Festival, the first sculptor to receive the honor.

Whether you’re a traditionalist looking to admire Remington or excited to see where the contemporary world of Hagege will take you, the growing Western art world seems here to stay.

“Two years ago, I would say it was obviously not a fad,” Fulton said. “Now, I can say it is here to stay. Jackson is a place where you can find traditional and contemporary Western art, and it works quite harmoniously together.”