Two retrospective exhibits examine the progression of pop artist Billy Schenck and celebrate the unique take he’s brought to the Western genre for 45 years.
Although the days of the untamed frontier are long gone, the cowboy’s life remains an inspiration for countless artists. Painter Billy Schenck has been exploring that subject for more than four decades, portraying gunslingers, cattle drivers, rodeo riders, and silver screen stars. But his work isn’t limited to cowboys. Schenck tells many tales of the West, from those of its cattlemen to its indigenous people to its vast open landscapes — and does so in a voice all his own.
While his subject matter is traditional, Schenck’s approach is anything but. By infusing photorealistic scenes with a pop art sensibility, Schenck has set himself apart in the Western genre. “[His] paintings, prints, and photographs ... debunk the long-standing myths of the cowboy and his country, while celebrating what’s truly magnificent about America — the land,” writes author Amy Abrams in Schenck in the 21st Century: The Myth of the Hero and the Truth of America (Western Skies Press, 2013).
Now 68, Schenck first formally studied art in his 20s at the Columbus College of Art and Design, where he was introduced to the captioned works of Roy Lichtenstein and the Campbell’s Soup Canspaintings of Andy Warhol (he later worked briefly under Warhol in New York). It wasn’t until he attended the Kansas City Art Institute and saw his first western film that Schenck fell in love with the mythic American West. He credits Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, with its artistic frames and distorted perceptions, as his primary inspiration. He told Southwest Art magazine that he “made a decision that if Leone could take that radical contemporary approach to the genre of western films, I was going to take a contemporary approach to painting Western subject matter.”
Schenck began transferring classic scenes from promotional movie stills to the canvas, reducing them in a flat, linear style and employing heavy outlines and bold unblended colors. His work took the New York art scene by storm in the 1960s, but once the pop art movement waned, Schenck decided to head west to “an environment that would accept my romantic attachment to Western subject matter, even though I was doing it with pop sensibility,” he told Southwest Art.
Today Schenck lives the lifestyle that has long been the driving force of his art on his ranch outside of Santa Fe (a former rodeo competitor, he continues to produce professional ranch sortings on his property). He often hits the trails, camera in tow, to capture the real-life images that inform his paintings. “He is intimately familiar with life in the West and with the development of the Western myth,” notes Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. “While many artists label themselves as contemporary Western artists but are simply ... depicting the Old West, Schenck knows well what it means to be simultaneously contemporary and Western.
“He is one of the few artists who challenge traditional myths in a way we can enjoy.”
To celebrate the individualistic vision Billy Schenck has brought to the West and its many inhabitants for 45 years, two retrospective exhibits will be held in 2016 showcasing 45 paintings and serigraphs that span the artist’s career. Billy Schenck: A 45 Year Retrospective will be on display at the Ellen Nöel Art Museum in Odessa, Texas, December 17, 2015 – March 6, 2016. The 45 featured artworks will then move to the Roswell Museum and Art Center in Roswell, New Mexico, for Billy Schenck’s West: A Retrospective, April 1 – September 18, 2016.
From the November/December 2013 issue.