Gordon McConnell | Once Upon a Time in the West

By Virginia Campbell

Movie westerns and TV shows of his youth infuse the post-modern paintings of Gordon McConnell


No matter how often you’ve see that moment in a TV crime show when the detectives lean over a computer screen, waiting for the fingerprint match to come up as the machine shuffles through its massive database, it’s always gripping. That little drama mimics what our brains do all the time—sorting through a vast store of images and making connections. Looking at the works of Montana artist Gordon McConnell, whose monochromatic acrylic paintings depict iconic, split-second scenes from western movies, gets our mental search engines going click-click-click, finding matches galore. Most post-modern art plays with this process, adding its own commentary with doses of insight, wit, polemic, and, very often, irony. McConnell is enough of a post-modernist to describe his art as “post-westernist.” But, he declares in almost the same breath, “I’m not ironic.”

It is because of that statement that you can invoke the sincerest aspects of the western tradition in looking at McConnell’s pictures. In playing with appropriated media images of a fictionalized legendary Frontierland, McConnell is not making fun of the Wild West. The legitimacy of the West as subject matter is real to him: “The culture of the West is something that is accruing a self-consciousness that’s going to be revealed over time,” he says. Neither is he indulging in fantasy. “I hope more artists will look at the West in a less sentimental way, at what our heritage in all its conflicted forms represents,” he says. What consumes his imagination is how fantasy and reality collide in all of our memories and perceptions of the West, and how this collision is a crucial, dynamic aspect of the American identity.

“I’m interested in how the history of the West, the post-Civil War frontier, was instantly dramatized and sensationalized,” explains McConnell. “Particularly how one frontier personality, Buffalo Bill Cody, codified western incidents and activities and turned them into common themes and set-pieces that soon began to play out in motion pictures.”


McConnell borrows images from movies by John Ford and other masters of the cinematic West, then recreates them in painterly gestures that, examined close-up, are almost abstract. The figures are more like shadows that magically reflect light than solid figures. He then presents them on canvas, paper, or masonite within a space even more two-dimensional than the movie frames from which he borrowed them. Moreover, his two-dimensional space is brushed on in layers, effaced, and otherwise worked over in a way that, in good post-modernist style, mimics and comments on the tradition of painting.

His techniques typically take abstract expressionist turns in paintings as different as ONSLAUGHT, in which a charging band of Indian warriors attacks the viewer head-on in blurs of shadow, light, and dust; RUNNIN’ GUN, which shows a cowboy caught in mid-stride, gun in hand; and AT A GALLOP, where the legs of horses hover over their own shadows. In all these paintings, iconic familiarity combines with frozen action and fleeting painterly effects to create a moment of timelessness in which we can play with our own responses.

McConnell was born in 1950, right smack in the mid-century era when all that Buffalo Bill represented was coming into artistic flower in classic Hollywood movies like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” in Sergio Leone’s shoot-’em-up spaghetti westerns, and in a host of TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” and “The Lone Ranger.” McConnell’s family lived in rural Colorado, where these entertainments resonated with real-life relevance.

“I grew up where the landscape was austere and simple,” he recalls. “My father’s farm backed up to the open prairie, and I could see Pikes Peak 70 miles away. My grandfather had a cattle ranch next to our farm.” Though McConnell’s father eventually left farming to go into teaching, the family stayed in the area.

In high school, McConnell had the advantage of an art teacher who introduced her students to Picasso and Klee, as well as an art club that went on field trips to Taos, NM. Equally important was his involvement with a Boy Scout troop called the Koshare Indian Dancers, which performed traditional Indian dances in a kiva where the walls were adorned with the paintings of Taos greats like Joseph Henry Sharp. In addition to all this, explains McConnell, “Some of my aesthetic education comes from graduating from juvenile movies and television programs to more sophisticated films like Howard Hawks’ ‘Red River,’ where the quality of story, direction, acting, and cinematography was on a different level.” Though McConnell’s subsequent art education would take him far conceptually from traditional western art, he would eventually return to the familiar ground of these early experiences…

Featured in March 2008

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