The image of a lone cowboy working cattle in the wide-open spaces of the West is a soothing, unchanging, timeless symbol of America. But that’s not reality on the range, and it certainly isn’t the reality in Duke Beardsley’s Denver studio.
“The cowboy icon is one of the most recognized in the world. You can whip out a picture of a cowboy anywhere, and people will know what it is,” Beardsley says. “But today’s vibrant, forward-minded, sustainable ranching culture is embracing a rapidly changing West.”
Beardsley’s bold take on the changing cowboy archetype will be on view in his first museum show, with sculptor Greg Woodard, beginning in late October at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. The exhibition, Indians & Cowboys: Redefined by Duke & Woodard, covers sacred turf he knows firsthand and isn’t afraid to challenge with a nontraditional approach.
A sixth-generation Coloradoan, Beardsley grew up splitting his time in the 1980s between Denver and his family’s 1,000-acre ranch on the plains of eastern Colorado. He spent his childhood learning to rope from cowboys — and drawing them. After graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he brought his cowboy idols to large-scale canvases. As his career developed, so did his distinctive style — he calls it “a mashup of contemporary design and traditional ranching of the American West” with visual references to pop art, abstract expressionism, and traditional Western art of the early 20th century.
Along the way, Beardsley happened on an unconventional, sometimes provocative perspective. “Isolating this treasured icon, taking it out of the traditional herd-bound context of the Western landscape was an unconscious thing,” Beardsley says. “What does it mean to take this much-beloved figure, extract it from its comfort zone, and force it into a color realm that is much more akin to Rauschenberg and Warhol than Remington and Russell? What kind of dialogue does it provide? What doors does it open, or shut? I’m comfortable with not knowing the answers, but I like allowing those questions.”
Best known for combining images of big working cowboys and rows of silhouetted riders, the artist doesn’t come to the canvas with many preconceived notions. “The only thing I ask of the lineup riders is that they’re straight,” Beardsley says. “Sometimes they overlap the cowboy and have a contest to see who is on top. I love letting them sort it out. I’ve learned to get out of the way as quickly as possible.”
Their identities obscured as is often the case with icons, his cowboys ride off the range and into the imagination. “I pull his hat down, put his face in the shadow, and viewers can have their own narrative,” he says.
Beardsley spends a lot of time on horseback, throwing a rope or getting down on the ground mugging calves or whatever needs doing. “[The people in the paintings] are real people, friends of mine,” he says. “I was right there with these guys, out riding and roping and branding. I’ve ridden these horses; some of them are mine. I rely on that physical experience as much as visual references from a camera.”
His process involves taking a lot of pictures, sometimes thousands in a morning. At night, he sketches from those visual notes, and “things start to jell,” he says. “I like the gesture of that horse. … I like that rider’s upper body and this rider’s lower body.”
He calls his works “painted drawings,” and drawings remain the heart of what he does. “Once I move to canvas, it takes over,” Beardsley says. “I draw images at scale freehand in charcoal on the canvas. Then I build layers of gray with acrylic paint I’ve thinned like watercolor. Sometimes pictures stay black and white; sometimes they move to color. If it feels turquoise, it’s turquoise. The image takes over.”
Beardsley keeps giving his imagination free rein and feels there’s still a lot of room to run. “I’ve thrown a lot at the cowboy icon, and it can take it,” he says. “It’s had no problem handling everything I challenged it to be.”
Indians & Cowboys: Redefined by Duke & Woodard is on view October 22, 2020 — February 21, 2021 at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. Beardsley is represented by Altamira Fine Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Jackson, Wyoming. For more on the artist, click here.
Photography: Images courtesy the artist
From our October 2020 issue.