The German artist paints scenes of classic Western imagery with a nod to Old World masters.
If Hita von Mende’s contemporary Western paintings sometimes seem to transcend the specific setting of the West, there’s a reason. Von Mende was born in Germany, and although she grew up in Minnesota and has spent much of her adult life in Washington state, her paintings hint at her European origins.
Scenes of classic Western imagery — cowboys roping and riding, longhorns, bucking broncos, wild stallions — are rendered amid jagged shards of color that tease abstraction, infusing the work with an inner energy and calling to mind the traditions of German expressionism, as well as the dynamic graphic design of postwar Germany. In a painting like Don’t Fence Me In, in which a lone longhorn stands in the foreground with a walled hamlet in the background, there’s even a conjuring in both setting and style of medieval fresco — the West colliding with the Old World. It’s also not difficult to recognize the influence of cubism, and Picasso in particular, as well as a color palette and warped sense of perspective that call to mind Cézanne.
It’s stylistically unusual to find Western subjects presented so — but no less compelling or marketable for the surprising combination. Her Western paintings sell almost as quickly as she can paint them and can be found in corporate and private collections. Von Mende’s images have been chosen for the Ellensburg Rodeo poster several times, and she was the featured artist for the Western Art Association’s 2014 National Western Art Show & Auction.
Most of her Western paintings explode with the kinetic energy of the rodeo: cowboys hanging on for dear life, livestock on the edge of control. In the painting Pickup Men, for example, three cowboys on horseback seem to tumble across the canvas in a great commotion. It is unclear where they are precisely, as the landscape blurs into a collision of colors, segmented into three rough sections that help the horses stand out, as if they were bursting forth from the surface. You can almost hear the hooves and smell the sweat the way the composition whips the scene into a powerful milieu.
Other works are more subdued, but they still manage the same expressive effect. The painting Showdown, in which four bulls stand in a line staring at the viewer, is in this vein. There is something tense and stubborn about the way they are pictured, as if you are confronting them in a pasture and they might move on you at any moment.
Von Mende says she paints in oil because there is an analogous relationship between the difficulty of the medium and the challenging subjects of the American West. “Oils are alive,” she says. “You can move the paint around, change things, focus on the things that interest you the most, and go on revising the rest until it, too, interests you.”
In all her work, including as a set designer for both opera and ballet, von Mende extracts drama, capturing the way the symbols and iconography of Western life touch upon a spirit that is beyond mere physical form. “These figures embody the romance and drama of the West,” von Mende says, “a dynamic space where heroism is both epic and everyday.”
From the January 2015 issue.