Artist Chuck Middlekauff conjures the 1950s and '60s with his impressive retro style watercolors, acrylics, and mixed media collages.
With its timeworn and weather-beaten Americana, the art of Chuck Middlekauff transports you back into the West of the 1950s and ’60s. Working in watercolor, acrylic, and collage, Middlekauff paints a world of vintage Coke bottles, gas pumps, and billboards, placing contemporary cowboys in decades-old iconic settings. He calls it American pop art.
Serving four years in the Navy after high school, Middlekauff went on to study drafting in Austin, Texas, then got married and moved to Denver, where he enrolled at Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University). Trying to graduate in his fifth year, he took a drawing class as an elective. “But this art class wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk,” Middlekauff remembers. “Professor Craig Marshall Smith said, ‘My grades range from 1 to 10. And nobody makes 10s!’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll show him.’ And I actually did make some 10s.” Middlekauff went on to graduate with honors in graphic design from the Art Institute of Colorado, where he learned about concept and design and “thinking outside of the box.”
A career in commercial art saw him working in Denver and LA. Today, he’s back in Austin, where he puts his happy retro spin on nostalgic imagery while listening to Alan Jackson, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, John Mellencamp, and others. We spoke with Middlekauff about his passion for vintage icons of the American West.
Cowboys & Indians: Your colors and concepts seem very ’50s Americana. What’s the inspiration for your work?
Chuck Middlekauff: As a child of the ’50s and ’60s and a young adult in the ’70s, I love everything about America and American culture from those decades. I really enjoy reliving that time through my paintings and reintroducing iconic images and things from the past and bringing them to life in a new way and perhaps a new generation.
C&I: Is there a particular artist from that era who inspired you?
Middlekauff: I have always loved Andy Warhol and the world of pop art. His label and product paintings were making headlines before today’s plastic and digital work. And like Warhol, I love bright red, the signature color of the ’60s, when pop art was new and exciting. Now, almost 50 years later his work has a faded patina to it that I try to capture in my own work.
C&I: We’ve read that you like to travel to regional rodeos across the West to photograph cowboys at work.
Middlekauff: Well, I do go to small-town rodeos around Texas so that I can be closer to the bullpens and have easier access to the performers where I can take candid photographs of them to translate into my paintings. I really enjoy the small-town action going on there and getting the essence of the cowboy — the look, the stance, and their attitude.
One of my favorite watercolor series features a cowboy dressed in a distressed red shirt, head down, wearing a worn tan hat, with the iconic Pepsi-Cola sign in the background. Another features the Road Runner cartoon character running behind him.
C&I: You do some collage in some of your work. What materials do you use to create this look?
Middlekauff: My collage work includes 45 records and album covers from the ’50s, as well as candy wrappers and other artifacts instilled within the body of the painting that I don’t want to paint. My goal is to entertain and even move people, so I cover these pieces with a patina to seamlessly weave together what’s painted and what’s not.
C&I: How do your road trips across the country figure into your art?
Middlekauff: Road trips across America invigorated my romance with the road: wide-open spaces, blue-sky days, the intense light after a summer thunderstorm, rusty windmills, gas pumps, pickups, and Coke machines, neon signs, worn-out toys, weather-beaten murals, and barns. Besides re-creating the details of cowboys, boots, and spurs, my painting hand keeps itching to work on all these other things that make me smile. I have found my direction and passion.
Photography: (ALL IMAGES) Courtesy chuck middlekauff.
Top image: Hot Cuisine 36 x 48 Acrylic on Canvas $4,550 / Middle image: All-American Paperback Rider 40 x 30 Water Media on Paper Mounted on Canvas $3,550
From the January 2019 issue.