Dispatch: Unraveling the myth of the cowboy at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

Cowboy, 2023. Installation view. Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Image: Wes Magyar.

Imagine the cowboy of your grandfather’s tales, the iconic figure known for brandishing a lasso, twirling it skillfully in the golden age of Hollywood, and sporting the quintessential ten-gallon hat. This larger-than-life figure has been celebrated in countless Western films and TV shows, epitomizing rugged individualism and the untamed spirit of the American West. Think of the stoic Marlboro Man who rode into the sunset, one hand on the reins, the other on their heart, a cigarette casually dangling from his lips, all set to the iconic soundtracks of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Westerns. Cowboy at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver sets out to shatter those Hollywood myths and reveal the real, diverse, and often overlooked stories that define the American cowboy. It’s a vibrant, multi-dimensional world where artists breathe new life into the cowboy, reshaping, challenging, and reconceiving this iconic figure and the myth that surrounds it for the contemporary era. 

Nora Burnett Abrams, Mark G. Falcone Director of MCA Denver, encapsulates the exhibition’s ambition in her words, “Cowboy speaks to the museum’s ambition to challenge, revise, and reconceive how such a myth originated and might be probed in exciting, courageous, and nuanced ways.” It’s a journey that delves into the heart of the cowboy, the myth, the character, and the ideal. 

Most of the stories we’ve heard about this iconic figure have omitted the wildly diverse histories and lived experiences surrounding this profession. The exhibition unveils what’s concealed beneath the branding iron of popular culture, much like peeling back the layers of a John Wayne Western. In Wayne’s cinematic world, the cowboy was often portrayed as an emblem of rugged heroism and stoic virtue, an image deeply etched into the popular cultural psyche. However, this exhibition seeks to dissect and deconstruct that iconic portrayal, exposing the complex realities and diverse histories that have often been overshadowed by Hollywood’s enduring influence.

By presenting a multitude of perspectives, this exhibition aims to shatter the homogenous image of the cowboy as a white, cisgender American male. It embraces the fact that cowboys come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, and they’re expressing themselves in a multitude of ways.

Cowboy features a dynamic collective of West Coast artists, including rafa esparza, Karl Haendel, Khalil Joseph, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Ken Taylor Reynaga, and Stephanie Syjuco. These artistic trailblazers redefine what it means to be a cowboy in the twenty-first century.  

Cowboy, 2023. Installation view. Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Image: Wes Magyar.

rafa esparza’s immersive installation, Querias Norte (2023), emerges as a profound and thought-provoking work of art that critically reevaluates the cowboy narrative, leaving an indelible mark on the way we perceive this iconic figure in U.S. history. By zooming in on the queer community within this complex cowboy construct, esparza not only challenges the traditional stereotype but also underscores the importance of intersectionality in art. His work delves into personal experiences, history, land, and kinship, shedding light on the intricate web of identity and culture. 

The installation, characterized by footprints and boots frozen in adobe spread across the gallery floor from a dance shared by two men, is not just a symbolic homecoming for the queer, brown community in Los Angeles; it’s a visual testament to the freedom and unity they find through movement and art. The earthy, textured adobe and the imprint of their movement create a tangible representation of the powerful connection between art and community, transcending traditional boundaries. It extends an open invitation for all to step into a space where their freedom is etched into the very earth, and where the residual energy works its magic to transform archaic ideals. 

In emphasizing the role of community in his practice, esparza’s work highlights the symbiotic relationship between art and the lived experiences of those it represents. It brings to the forefront the often-overlooked voices and stories within the broader cowboy narrative, such as those of Native American, Black, and LGBTQ+ community, challenging the conventions and contributing to a more inclusive and diverse cultural discourse. esparza’s installation thus becomes a crucial platform for reevaluation, confronting prejudices, and expanding the horizons of the cowboy myth with a critical and inclusive lens.

Cowboy, 2023. Installation view. Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Image: Wes Magyar.
Stephanie Syjuco, Set-Up (The Broncho Buster 2), 2022. Archival pigment print, 72 x 52 inches. Image courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery and RYAN LEE Gallery.

Stephanie Syjuco’s photographs, Set Up (The Bronco Buster 1), Set Up (The Bronco Buster 2), and Set Up (The Rattlesnake) (all 2021), are a cheeky guided tour through the tangled web of racialized, exclusionary narratives in U.S. history. Syjuco’s installation is a masterful blend of digital editing, staged photography, and archival excavation, which allows her to ingeniously reframe the works of renowned artists like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington. She meticulously peels back the layers of these iconic pieces and their presentation within a museum, effectively revealing how they can perpetuate colonial lore. 

Her artwork offers a contemplative exploration of the museum’s role in preserving, presenting, and interpreting these works. What’s truly remarkable is her focus on the often concealed tools of photography and cataloging that underpin these artworks, bringing them into the public eye. By encouraging us to reflect on the artists’ constructed mythologies of the West and the way these artworks are staged within the museum context, Syjuco challenges us to rethink the stories we tell about our nation and who those narratives ultimately serve. In doing so, she unveils the museum itself as a subtle puppeteer, influencing what’s deemed valuable, meaningful, and significant within our cultural discourse. With Syjuco, photography isn’t just a snapshot; it’s a sly wink that makes you rethink the layers of history, identity, and authenticity sewn into the U.S. art tapestry more broadly.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Caught in the Act, 2023.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Rodeo Boys, 2022.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s artworks, Caught In The Act (2023) and Rodeo Boys (2022), redefine the historical archetype that has been dominated by a singular narrative, often neglecting the significant contributions and experiences of Black cowboys in shaping the West. 

Quaicoe’s work challenges this omission, offering a fresh perspective that not only acknowledges but celebrates the legacy of Black cowboys. By placing them at the forefront as vibrant, modern-day subjects, the paintings recognize their strength, resilience, and indomitable spirit. This act of representation is essential in rectifying historical inaccuracies and breaking down stereotypes, fostering a more inclusive and accurate depiction of the multifaceted cowboy experience. Quaicoe’s art contributes to a broader cultural conversation on diversity, identity, and historical narratives, illuminating the stories that have been historically overshadowed.

The exhibition goes beyond challenging perpetuated stereotypes; it serves as a vital lens through which we can acquire a more authentic and inclusive understanding of cowboy mythology. As we immerse ourselves in this thought-provoking collection, it becomes evident that it’s not just about breaking free from clichés but also engaging in a profound dialogue about how cultural narratives are constructed and maintained. It beckons us to question the very institutions that shape our perceptions of authenticity and challenges us to take an active role in shaping our own narratives.

In the context of the 21st century, these examples resonate as powerful symbols of change and evolution. They invite us to consider the fluidity and complexity of U.S. history and culture, dismantling the idea that the cowboy archetype is static and unchanging. Today’s cowboy is a reflection of the ever-shifting U.S. landscape, embracing diversity and pushing boundaries. Ultimately, Cowboy offers a fresh perspective, reminding us that art can be a catalyst for social change, leading the way toward a more equitable and diverse future.

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
September 29, 2023 to February 18, 2024

We’re here because of you.

By becoming a monthly subscriber or making a one time gift of your choosing, you’re directly helping the Variable West team build a stronger, more resilient and diverse West Coast art world. Your support makes it all possible!

Make a one time gift in any amount