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Home on the Range

Gifted cowboy artist whose work is on exhibit knew the Wild West he painted.

March 26, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a whole lotta' lore going on in the current exhibition at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. Edward Borein, a gifted cowboy artist with a singular obsession, spent his artistic life creating and re-creating scenes from the Wild West.

But he also tapped into a different kind of cultural soil, settling into his studio in Santa Barbara's El Paseo from 1921 to 1946 and attracting visitors from far and wide. Among them were such legends of Hollywood as Mae West, Harpo Marx, Spencer Tracy and Will Rogers.

Southern California was still a frontier of sorts at the time, and Borein, who drew on his early life as an actual cowboy in his art, had real McCoy status that fed his image. It makes perfect sense that this show also includes displays of his hat, leather belt and chaps, honest accouterments of a gentleman cowboy.

There is a subplot to the exhibition as well, relating to local art collecting. This work was collected by Katherine Halley, who passed away last year. She was an important benefactress of the museum, as was her mother, Edith Hobson Hoffman, after whom the main gallery is named.

This won't be the most aesthetically challenging exhibition you will find in the area this year, but it holds unexpected charm, especially seen in the lucid arena of a well-designed gallery presentation. If his definition of subject was limited mostly to etchings and watercolors of cowboys in wide open spaces, on their trusty steeds, Borein had an exacting touch and a way with detail that impresses, whatever the iconography.

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For one thing, he was practiced in the challenging art of depicting action gracefully. He captured a moment of sinew and dramatic motion, horse and steer turning in a run, in "California Vaquero," and the hurtling arch of a bucking bronco in "Riding a Young One." The convergence of the Wild West and urban forces underscores an image of gun-wielding Mexicans on horseback, made as an illustration for a Saturday Evening Post article called "Wall Street's Stake in Mexico."

"Scratchin' High," used on a poster for the Calgary Stampede, finds a horse in a nearly vertical position, in a convulsion of will--the will to eject his rider. In "End of the Race," a cowboy flings a lasso at a steer, and everything in the composition--bovine, rope, horse and rider--are in midair, in a state of suspended animation. That is Borein's art in a nutshell.

Cornball humor pops up in his work, too, as in the announcement for his own wedding, with the couple riding off on horseback from a building with the sign "GONE AND DUNNIT."

He also took time to observe tranquil scenery around him, including Southwestern landscapes and the stately geometries of California missions, including Santa Barbara's, even then a tourist destination and basking in haughty splendor as the so-called "Queen of the Missions."

One unfinished piece jumps out for attention in the show, its only finished element being a bucking bronco in a corral. It's an accidental modernist moment, with its character of art-about-art, revealing process. Of course, modernist thinking was beyond Borein's ken.

Wherever his eye and imagination took him, within a tightly limited range of artistic interests, Borein applied a solid, no-nonsense attention to craft. And his work is evocative of a time and place refreshingly far from a world going to the dot coms.

DETAILS

"The West Remembered: The Art of Edward Borein," through May 7 at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art in Ventura. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 653-0323; $3 seniors, $4 adults, $1 children 6-17.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at joeinfo@aol.com.

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