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SIGHTS : Annual Exhibit a Roundup of Western Art at the Autry

This weekend's exhibition and sale demonstrate the diversity and popularity of the genre.


The last 10 years have been good for Western art, according to area artist Vic Riesau. The quality has gone up as money has become tighter.

"Ten years ago if you did a horse, you could sell it, no matter how bad it was," says Riesau, past president of the American Indian and Cowboy Artists (AICA), whose annual show and sale begin today at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

The exhibit, which will be at the Griffith Park museum through the weekend, features 150 paintings and sculptures by AICA's 34 members and three guest artists. The group, which screens applicants for both the quality of their work and their character, includes artists from across the country. Native American members include those of Navajo, Apache, Chickasaw, Seminole and Shawnee heritage. At least one artist--Ken Schmidt--has a working ranch in upstate New York and a closetful of chaps to die for.

"I think the primary attraction to Western art is the subject matter," says Riesau, who lives near Pasadena, in Temple City. All the paintings and sculptures are Western themed, but, as Riesau points out, the West was remarkably diverse. At the show, grizzled mountain men hang next to bronze bucking broncos; glowing Western landscapes are juxtaposed with scenes of rodeo life in the 1990s.

All the work is representational, although much of it has an abstract edge. Baje Whitethorne Sr., for instance, will show a watercolor inspired by his childhood on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Teetering piles of almost abstract orange and red rocks lie under a blue-black night sky. If you look hard enough at the picture, you'll find a small blue folding chair that has become a Whitethorne signature. One summer when he was a boy, his parents bought a new card table and four blue metal chairs. In the brutal heat, he recalls, "I would put my face on the seats because they were so cool."

Some of the work is anecdotal, a beloved quality of much Western art. Think of artist Charlie Russell's famed painting of a Western hunter who has shot a sheep that has slipped off a mountain and now dangles from a limb, out of reach. The title: "Meat's Not Meat Till It's in the Pan."

Riesau has an anecdotal piece in the show: a sculpture showing the seven survivors of the Donner party, which resorted to cannibalism when stranded in the Sierra in the winter of 1846-47, just as the members are about to be saved. Called "Sighting the Rescue Party," it's a serious, even tragic piece. Needless to say Riesau nixed his son's suggestion that it be called "Quick, Hide the Jerky."

Neil Boyle of Thousand Oaks is also showing several pieces that are highly narrative. Both a painter and a sculptor, Boyle finds many of his subjects in Western history. Cowboys bore him, but he loves the Blood and Piegan Indians of his Canadian childhood, and he is also taken with the sleazy side of the West. One of his paintings shows a Western "lady of easy virtue lying in bed, waiting for whatever." It is called "It's a Hell of a Long Way From Philadelphia." Boyle says there were dozens of colorful euphemisms for the prostitutes who were a fixture of the Old West. His favorite: nymph du prairie.


A distinguished illustrator as well as a fine artist, Boyle also does non-Western work. In 1984 he painted a 146-foot-long mural depicting the history of the Jews in America for Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Glendale. Noting such milestones as Abraham Lincoln's authorization of Jewish military chaplains, the work, converted into a mosaic, "reads right to left the way you read Hebrew."

Several artists in the group have worked in the film industry. Senior member Duncan Spencer was an artist on such MGM classics as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Meet Me in St. Louis." His work in the Autry show is a hawk's-eye view of ranch life, called "Looking Down on Bear Valley, Bear Valley, California."

Guy Deel of Glendale does story and visual development in the feature animation department at Disney. Many of Deel's paintings started life as cover art for Western books. (He estimates that he has done 200 to 300.) Often he begins the transformation from commercial to fine art by taking out some of the flashier elements--the ones that move books. For the show's "Buckskin Pass," for instance, he eliminated a trapper bristling with arrows, while retaining the central image of a stagecoach in the snow.

For most of the 20 years of AICA's existence, it held its annual show and sale in San Dimas in conjunction with a local Festival of Western Art that was part art show, part powwow. The change of venue to a museum with the stature of the Autry is a coming of age for a group that prides itself on its hand-picked members' varied gifts. Says Riesau: "Our intent is to have an annual event that becomes a premier show."


* WHAT: 19th annual American Indian and Cowboy Artists Exhibition and Sale at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

* WHERE: 4700 Western Heritage Way, in Griffith Park, across from the L.A. Zoo.

* WHEN: Today through Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $85 for a four-day package that includes tonight's opening event, tomorrow night's awards banquet, catalog, poster, seminars and other events.

* CALL: (213) 667-2000.

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