PASO ROBLES, Calif. — The county cattlemen's association's annual sale is about to begin. As dusk falls on the Mid-State Fairgrounds, two men stand practicing lariat tosses, a barbecue drum belches tri-tip smoke, and a crowd collects in the exhibition hall, thick with Stetsons and Wranglers and leather fringe. The scene is everything a city slicker would imagine, except that the cattlemen aren't here to sell cattle.
They're here for the art.
"Amazing," says one browser, admiring a stylized steer.
"The color!" says another, standing before a desert landscape.
In the unlikely event that you could haul an art critic or curator into this room, the 100-plus paintings and sculptures might well inspire scorn or giggles. But these artworks sell. Within minutes of the sale's 7 p.m. opening, red dots are turning up next to oil paintings priced at $6,000 and $7,000.
Americans are buying Western art--pictures and sculptures of cowboys, Indians, ranch animals and the landscapes that sustain them--at a startling rate, paying prices that stretch into six and seven figures. In Los Angeles, the take of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage's annual Western art sale has grown since 1998 from $350,000 to $1.4 million. In Reno, the annual Coeur D'Alene Art Auction jumped from $8 million in sales in 2000 to $14 million in 2001. In Oklahoma City, where the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's annual Prix de West sale has doubled its revenue in the last seven years, a June sale of about 275 paintings and sculptures fetched $2.5 million.
This doesn't mean the Western art wagon train is about to roll over Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso. But a New West subculture has collected around this Old West imagery. Its mostly male ranks are populated at one extreme by genuine ranchers who want their interiors to match their outdoor lives, and at the other by wealthy indoorsmen looking to illustrate their dreams of escape.
"It's no-nonsense art," says Margaret L. Brown, editor of Houston-based Southwest Art magazine. "You don't have to explain it or figure it out. It is what it is."
In this world, cell phones may be sheathed in leather holsters, mustaches are often waxed, and belt buckles make fashion statements. Cowboys and Indians do business side by side. And though nobody can fully explain an art boom, insiders and outsiders naturally have their theories.
"It represents a clearer, simpler kind of life," says David Pereira, a San Luis Obispo rancher on the art show committee.
And it may be no coincidence that Western art is booming just as an unprecedented number of vacation homes are rising in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Sun Valley, Idaho; and other Western resort towns. "They don't want modern art," says Bob Drummond, co-founder of the Reno-based Coeur D'Alene auction. "They want Western paintings to fit their decor."
Not every big-time aficionado, however, is merely filling wall space in a new cabin. Look, for instance, at the walls of John and Sara Lynn Geraghty. John Geraghty, 72, retired from the automotive business in the mid-1990s and has been running the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale at the Autry museum since 1998. Two hundred paintings and drawings hang in his comfortable Glendale home.
Geraghty, sporting a bolo tie and boots, looks at his collection like a teacher inspecting prize students.
"The cream comes to the top," Geraghty says. "When a piece can tell a story, it's going to last longer, and it's got more value."
Geraghty points out the impressionistic scenes in the dining room, the wildlife in the master bedroom, the color values in a misty scene by Richard Schmid of an Alaskan salmon trawler.
He pauses in the den, at "Army Regulations," which shows four Indians on horses. "It's not photorealism," Geraghty says. "It's real, honest-to-God masterful art. Look at the hint of veins in the horses' legs."
His view of abstract art: "It's just a scam. I can't appreciate it. It's hard for me to have a big white canvas with a red dot in the corner and call it art."
Attention to Detail,
and the Right Costume
Back at the fairgrounds, the Stetsons and Wranglers are jostling, and Steven Lang is talking about cowboy leggings.
"You've got to know when they wore shotgun chaps, and when they were batwing chaps," says Lang. "You can't use batwing chaps on an 1850s cowboy. I'm trying to paint for the 2% of people who know that."
Lang, 41, plain-spoken and part Pawnee, wears a cowboy hat --"it's almost the costume you have to wear," he confesses--and stands in front of a booth with half a dozen of his canvases. Six years ago, he was designing characters for a video game company in San Jose.