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Arts in Milwaukee

A Public Service Of Milwaukee Artist Resource Network

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  • “Big Thing and Little Thing”Big Thing and Little Thing

    Acrylic and oil on canvas over panel. 18" x 24". 2012.

James Pederson

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artist statement

A reenactment of the famous “Shootout at the O.K. Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona between outlaw gunslingers and heroic lawmen might be staged in the spirit of keeping the memory of the “Old West” alive, yet its inevitable deviations from the historical event ensure that the memory is swiftly forgotten, replaced with what could be characterized as a bastardization of the historical culture.

At its inception, the cowboy as an icon may have had a parasitic relationship to its origin, in that its viability depended on channeling the memory of the historical cowboy. Today however, the iconic cowboy is not a degenerate version of its historical counterpart, but rather a distinct cultural entity. Relative to the historical cowboy, the cowboy of pop-culture has had a much longer life, and pervades a much greater part of American culture. In light of this, it does not make sense to categorically dismiss the cowboy icon as fake, but rather to acknowledge that it is authentic in its own right.

Most of contemporary culture is synthetic, in the sense that it appropriates preceding forms of
culture from a variety of sources and combines them. Artifice constitutes far too much of the cultural landscape for us to simply purge it of anything less than authentic-- we would hardly have anything left. The problem here lies not so much in this condition itself, but our awareness of it. There is nothing wrong with the fact that the historical and iconic cowboys are significantly different from one another, the dilemma arises when we forget that there is a distinction at all.

Using the same line of thinking that rejects the cowboy icon for suggesting that it is more than it
literally is, we could also reduce a painting to a shallow box surfaced with a faux finish. Surfaces are generally thought of as superficial; subservient to the essential structure of a given form. That hierarchy is flipped in the case of viewing a painting, where the surface is not a veneer to be peeled away, but rather a vehicle through which we arrive at meaning.

The slick surfaces of the dominant modes of image distribution, such as screens and photographs, seem to be designed to minimize their physical presence as much as possible. This leaves the allure of illusion uninhibited, encouraging a more passive engagement with the image. Perhaps there is something refreshing then, about the chunkier, dimensional surface of a painting. Gestural brush strokes and passages layered on top of one another keep passivity at bay, by constantly directing our attention to how the image was cobbled together from a series of discursive moves.