Duke Beardsley | Pop Goes the Cowboy

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Duke Beardsley, Tres Hombres

Duke Beardsley, Tres Hombres

At first glance, Duke Beardsley’s bold, modernist take on western American icons seems like a simple marriage from both sides of the proverbial fence: ranch and city, traditional and contemporary, East Coast and mountain West. Line up a five-generation Colorado ranching family on one side and Andy Warhol plus a sampling of abstract expressionists on the other, and see how they mix. Yet the reality of Beardsley’s artistic style is more complex.

On the cowboy side, for instance, is Beardsley’s rancher friend and hero who hardly fits the stereotype of the traditional West. As Beardsley describes this friend—on whose land the artist often puts his own hands to the familiar act of working cows—this 21st-century cowboy is also a “philosopher, artist, musician, conservationist, engineer, businessman, dreamer, and schemer. What is it that I’m learning from him that is coming out in my art?” Beardsley asks.

Duke Beardsley, Ranger

Duke Beardsley, Ranger

As it turns out, this is one of many queries the thoughtful, amiable 41-year-old painter tends to ask himself as he follows the unmarked trail of his distinctive brand of art. He ponders the implications of his new/old vision and its popularity among collectors who otherwise might never look sideways at a cowboy hat. He wonders what his work has to say about both art and the changing West. And he offers his paintings as inspiration for viewers to raise these questions themselves. Yet Beardsley is comfortable with only the faintest glimmer of an answer, or no answer at all. Creating art from an authentic place, he believes, is what counts.

One aspect of Beardsley’s life that cannot be questioned is the profound effect of his family’s multigenerational connection with ranching and the land. While he grew up primarily in Denver, young Duke spent many long weekends and summers on horseback, gathering and branding cattle at the family ranch southeast of Denver. At the same time, art was a constant companion. Exposed to fine art at the Denver Art Museum, Beardsley remembers drawing constantly and wishing he could have met Frederic Remington. In high school he played sports but also “got a lot of guff” from his buddies for keeping a watercolor kit in his car.

Duke Beardsley, Come Along

Duke Beardsley, Come Along

For the next step in his life, art won out over ranching as Beardsley left Colorado for Vermont, where he earned an art history degree at Middlebury College and had his vision blown open by the art scene in Boston and New York City. “That stunned me into what has become a lifelong love of abstract expressionism and pop art,” he reflects. “It really exposed me to modern art.” Yet the idea of an art career would have to wait for a couple more turns of the serendipitous wheel of life.

The first turn was an intensive pre-med program at The Claremont Colleges in California, where Beardsley did well but gradually realized his passion was not for science. Still, the experience placed him in Southern California, ripe for a friend’s suggestion that he drive to Pasadena to visit the Art Center College of Design. “I fell totally in love with it,” he relates, “and two months later I enrolled.” The considerable talent he encountered there awakened in Beardsley a previously dormant competitive side. “I hit the ground hard and never quit till they let me out,” he says with a smile.

The second pivotal event took place as he was finishing art school. Along with many of his classmates, he was eyeing an animation or illustration career in the entertainment industry, hearing the siren call of such firms as Dreamworks, Disney, and Industrial Light & Magic. First, however, he submitted some large rodeo drawings to his high school’s alumni art show in Denver. The drawings were snatched up, and a Denver gallery owner offered him a show. “I had a fun summer getting ready,” he says, “and when the show opened I sold everything the first night.”
That unexpected success—along with a girlfriend (now his wife) in Denver—took Beardsley back to his home state.

Duke Beardsley, I Speak to You Now With the Land's Voice, oil, 7 2 x 48.

Duke Beardsley, I Speak to You Now With the Land’s Voice, oil, 7 2 x 48.

He began reconnecting with ranch owners and spending time in the saddle with a rope in his hand. He was also busy transforming his on-the-ground experiences into an artistic style that merged his adopted aesthetic with the iconography of his roots. “I got some really great advice early on from gallery owners and dealers,” he notes. “One old-school dealer, Tom Carson in Denver, kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry; just paint whatever comes into your mind, whatever is in your heart.’ It was a great thing for a young artist to come up against a seasoned vet with that kind of advice.”

Beardsley’s work soon began finding collectors and being included in important exhibitions, including the Coors Western Art Exhibit, the C.M. Russell Museum’s Western Masters Art Show, and the Buffalo Bill Art Show. In 2007 he was in China as part of an exhibition of contemporary western American art when he happened upon the inspiration for one of his signature expressive forms. “I saw some contemporary Chinese art with iconography that was heavily repetitive,” he recalls. “It knocked me out, and I came home frantically drawing silhouetted riders, times a hundred.” (With characteristic wit, Beardsley posted on his Facebook page an image of several of these paintings side-by-side, with the comment: “I’ve heard it said that repeating oneself is an early and sure sign of insanity. I’ve heard it said that repeating oneself is an early and sure sign of insanity.”)

Along with multiples of riders and large, striking cowhand imagery, which the artist describes as “whacked with some pretty crazy color schemes,” Beardsley envisions a more narrative element entering his art at some point, inspired by his own experience and perhaps by contemporary literature. For now, he lets the art itself lead the way, and he follows his own advice: “Stay present, stay grateful, work hard. I try not to worry about what’s coming down the pike,” he adds, “but I’m very open to nurturing the things that are coming out now—fanning the flame.”

Duke Beardsley, Socios, oil, 60 x 36.

Duke Beardsley, Socios, oil, 60 x 36.

1. Face in shadow: I think this invites the viewer into the painting. If I create a strong likeness, it keeps people at a distance. Rather than focus on one individual, I want viewers to feel that the rider could be them or someone they know. It makes for a stronger icon when the face is kept in shadow or turned away.

2. Composition: This is a big painting, and this guy is right in the middle of it. That gets your attention. I could have cropped the cowboy’s hat or the horse’s face, but that would be a different intention and painting. In this painting I keep the eye moving by using strong horizontal and diagonal lines. There’s a big, round coil of rope that goes clockwise and redirects your eye back into the painting. Your eye might move up the legs of the horse and then get swept out of the canvas by the horse’s ears. But the ears are on the lightest background in the painting, and that brings your eye back into the piece and to the rider’s face under the brim of the hat.

3. Texture: There are a lot of layers to this painting. The first layer is a charcoal drawing that I then hit with a clean, wet brush, washing the charcoal into the canvas and establishing the foundation for the painting. I then went directly over the drawing with dark red paint, outlining the horse and rider. Next I applied thick oil glazes of various colors, which I then partially wiped away with a dry rag, my fingers, even the palm of my hand to give definition to the horse and rider. The results can be seen in the dirty yellow of the rider’s shirt and in the rich blues and blue-greens of the horse’s head and chest. The last step is to “carve out” the horse and rider by applying the background colors.

4. Color: I love red. I wish I could be more intellectual about it, but red to me is the color of strength. So to put red into something gives it force. The geometry of the red shape in this painting is intended to be reminiscent of a loose interpretation of a mesa or maybe a corral.

Altamira Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Visions West Galleries, Bozeman and Livingston, MT, and Denver, CO; Due West Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Davis & Blevins: The Main Street Gallery, Saint Jo, TX; www.dukebeardsleystudio.com.

Upcoming Shows
Two-person show with Donna Howell-Sickles, Altamira Fine Art, August 2-15.
Solo show, Visions West Galleries, Denver, CO, November 10-December 19.

Featured in August 2011.