Create, Kill, Create: Art and Hunting in Wyoming
Local culture, exquisite aesthetics, and the brutalities of hunting and fishing converge in a current exhibition at the Wyoming State Museum.
Installation view of taxidermy by Dawayne Dewey in 'Art of the Hunt' at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne. All photos by the author
The Art of the Hunt exhibition at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne announces itself as an assembly of "folk art." But nothing in it suggests the artists are in any way naive, outsiders, or eccentric. Instead, the viewer is struck by the flawlessness expressed by nearly every piece. Walking through the gallery is like perusing a high-end design boutique whose wares are instruments in the processes of pursuing, catching, killing, and carving wild animals. They are sculptures of death—but also sculptures of life, tied to cultural rituals more ancient than story or song, beautiful objects that articulate man's place in this world as beast among beasts.
I grew up hunting in Wyoming. Even before I was old enough to hunt, I remember riding in the back seat of my dad's Chevy Blazer as he romped on the gas down a dirt road in the desert after a running herd of antelope that contained a shootable buck, only to slam on the brakes as the animals altered course so that my mom, riding shotgun, could jump out, the butt of her rifle already at her shoulder as she slammed her elbow down on the hood of the truck and blasted off round after round while the herd careened through the sagebrush at nearly 60 miles an hour, kicking up dust on its way over a rise. I remember carcasses hanging in our garage every fall, and the year my mom and dad both drew moose licenses and we had to buy a second deep freeze to store all the meat. When I finally became old enough to hunt, I was so excited I missed a dozen buck deer over the course of weeks before finally gut-shooting a poor little three-point at close range on top of a snowy ridge. The putrid smell of a stomach-full of half-digested grass that my badly placed bullet had spread throughout the animal's insides is something I'll recall until I die. The next three animals I killed—an antelope and two more deer—I did so with a single shot each. I remember distinctly while bearing down on the second deer being filled with a sense not of excitement, but something like regret. I had acquired an experiential understanding of the consequences of my actions. I felt perfectly calm, if melancholic. The deer was more than 200 yards out, running at an angle away from me. I squeezed the trigger, and he tumbled feet-over-head—it was the best shot of my life.
My older brother didn't take much to hunting. My dad scolded him on one of his first outings for mule deer because he didn't stay put while my dad flushed some deer out of a stand of trees and a nice buck ran right past the place my brother was supposed to have been positioned. Even as a teenager, my brother fancied himself a smartypants—still does—but hunting demands a different intelligence than the type my brother so proudly possessed. Some of the best hunters in Wyoming are probably school-wise dumb as posts, but can tap some primal sensibility that allows them to succeed as predators succeed. It follows, then, that art related to hunting would be considered folk—outside the canon, outside academia, entrenched in customs and aesthetics that have little to do with the so-called art world.
The objects in Art of the Hunt reflect their creators' formal mastery and meticulous attention to detail. From a few steps back, a person can admire the perfect symmetry and balance of form of a graphite fly-fishing rod made by Layne Capozza, but only closer inspection reveals the intricacies of the dazzling translucent blue marbled overlay applied by his wife, Elizabeth. Much of the imagery incorporated into the artworks speaks to classic themes of the West, but often in complex ways—the natural cracks in an aged deer antler inlaid by Kirk Rexroat in a knife handle resemble lines on a topography map, the kind hunters use to find their way through roadless terrain. The ornate, three-dimensional floral patterns Don Butler stamped in all-over print onto his "Mother Hubbard Saddle" look at once cowboy-classic and contemporary—a placard explains Butler draws inspiration from Chanel purses and Faberge eggs. All the featured artists live and work in Wyoming, and many of their materials are local, including animal parts: Tom Lucas softens the curled horns of bighorn sheep in boiling water to straighten them into bows—a practice invented by a tribe of Shoshone who soaked horns in the natural hot springs of what's now Yellowstone National Park to make them malleable; Charles McCall ties fishing flies out of elk and antelope hair and wild turkey feathers; Antonin Soldierwolf carved the double-pronged tip of a Northern Arapaho fishing arrow out of bone; Rich Wormington lacquered a snakeskin onto the front of a longbow; and leather goods throughout the exhibit use hide from Wyoming-raised cattle. But in the era of globalization, even folk artists source materials far and wide—Jerry Johnson builds fly-fishing poles out of bamboo he has shipped from the Tonkin region of China.
Chris Kraus argues in her book Where Art Belongs that the particularities of an artist's life are no longer as important as fine-arts degrees or his or her predictable slog up the art world ladder. "The artist's own biography doesn't matter much at all," she writes. "What life? The blanker the better." Conversely, the artworks in Art of the Hunt offer not only their creators' lives—those who make saddles ride them; those who make rifles feed their families with them—but often also the lives of prior generations who passed down their crafts. Folk artists are allegedly "untrained," but that doesn't square with the experience of Glenda Trosper, who was taught to weave mosaics of beads into lifelike images by her father, who was taught by his mother, and so on.
Taxidermy occupies a portion of the gallery. I feel ambivalent about taxidermy. On one hand, it strikes me as appallingly prideful to display animals as trophies in a manner that seems to boast: Look at this magnificent creature I was able to slaughter because I am superior . It seems to confirm Joy Williams's claim in her scathing anti-hunting essay "The Killing Game" that hunters kill "to make an animal 'theirs'... The animal becomes the property of the hunter by its death. Alive, the beast belongs only to itself. This is unacceptable to the hunter." On the other hand, it's true—as copy on the gallery wall informs visitors—that mounted animals are objects that evoke memories and prompt storytelling about an important event in a person's life. Many of the exhibit's artworks could function similarly—to hold a beautiful rifle might remind its possessor of the hunts he or she has already undertaken with it, and at the same time provide promise that beyond the humdrum of everyday life lie further adventures in the wild.
But such memory making and oral history does not require an ostentatious mount. The rafters of my dad's garage are filled with antlers attached only to bits of skull from animals he's killed over his nearly 60 years of hunting. On many occasions, we've found ourselves together in there and he'll point to a set and tell me when and where he got them, what happened during the hunt. I remember bringing home for Christmas one year a girlfriend who had co-owned a hip gallery in San Francisco—not far from Paxton Gate , the upscale novelty boutique in the Mission District that specializes in clever taxidermy. She loved the antlers in the garage, and she and my dad had a good general rapport, but as they began to talk about them it seemed as though two beings—from different planets that were similar but distinct in important ways—were trying in vain to communicate. They both valued the antlers, but in ways that were alien to one another.
The most impressive taxidermy in Art of the Hunt is a full-body mount by Dawayne Dewey of a tremendously large bighorn sheep ram sitting regally among rocks and brush that are meant to resemble his natural habitat. He has been literally put up on a pedestal, like an object of worship. This and other ultra-lifelike taxidermy seems to express to me a longing on the hunter's part to place the animal back into the wilderness, back into life—a longing that can never supersede or revoke his initial desire to kill it.
Not long ago—but a world far away from the wilds of Wyoming—I was talking to a friend who lives in Brooklyn but has been spending her winters in New Orleans, where I've lived most of the past five years. She saw firsthand Williamsburg overtaken by yuppiedom and real-estate development and was now watching the same thing happen to the Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans. I told her I thought the process we were witnessing in those places and across the United States was fueled by people who grew up in small towns and suburbs without any culture to speak of as their own and who moved to cities in search of it. With nothing in particular to contribute—unlike, say, immigrants who bring along with them whole sets of cultural traditions—these suburban transplants wind up half-assedly aping and diluting whatever urban culture they grasp onto and, in the process, inviting into cities the same commercial homogenization they grew up with (except, instead of strip malls and chain stores, they now have coffee shops and cocktail bars). I was one of these people, I told her, but over time I had realized that, in fact, I came from a place with a robust regional culture—which is one reason why, after more than a decade, I was moving back. She asked me what Wyoming's culture is like, and I began to tell her about Art of the Hunt.
But I caught myself, recognizing I was, in essence, repeating the same mistake I'd just critiqued. For reasons that seem ingrained in me, when this erudite novelist asked me about culture, I felt compelled to tell her about something in a museum—the same way my adolescent belief that "real culture" consisted of art-house cinema, gallery exhibitions, and DIY concerts kept me unconscious of the culture that surrounded me. Art of the Hunt does include objects that speak to many aspects of core Wyoming customs—even a cookbook that highlights our distinct culinary traditions based on wild game. But Wyoming's culture lives in the forest, the oil field, the ranch, the desert, the railroad town, the roadhouse—it doesn't really have shit to do with museums.
The art of creating tools for hunting and fishing is almost as old as the practices themselves, and the function—and therefore the form—of, say, a pistol is the same as it was centuries ago. Compared to contemporary art one finds in galleries and museums today, the works in Art of the Hunt may seem anachronistic. But the crucial role these objects play in an old and distinct regional culture gives them power and meaning—unlike the unceasing flow of new styles, new forms, and new media in contemporary art that scramble like a BuzzFeed column to keep up with the conversation of the moment.
Related: Carey McWilliams of Fargo, North Dakota, the first totally blind hunter to acquire a concealed-carry permit
In his essay "The Weak Universalism," Boris Groys challenges the common assumption that art should be a vehicle for change—not necessarily that it shouldn't be, but he questions our very understanding of change within our current context. "One repeatedly hears and reads that we need change, that our goal—also in art—should be to change the status quo," he writes. "But change is our status quo. Permanent change is our only reality. And in the prison of permanent change, to change the status quo would be to change the change—to escape the change."
Groys points out that while avant-garde art is typically associated with notions of progress—particularly technological progress—the first generation of avant-garde artists viewed technology not as a means to build a more stable, comfortable world, but as a destructive force they desired to harness only in order to promote the end of modern technological civilization itself. Dada artists appropriated and mocked the imagery and language of mechanized bourgeois European society they saw as a root cause of World War I. Fast forward a century, and technological advancement married to global capitalism has only cemented our obsessive cultural bond with change: "What new features will the iPhone give us next?" cry out voices from every continent. MFA students across the country hurry to sign up for courses on GIF art.
Folk art such as that in Art of the Hunt seems to offer a means of resistance, or at least a point of reference alternate to a global art world growing increasingly uniform under the sway of the MFA-to-gallery pipeline. The forms and images on display—the knife blade, the rosette—have been created to survive time. They live outside the prison of permanent change. They possess characteristics to which the avant-garde has historically aspired. Some people call folk art "primitive art." Well, hunting is primitive. But the art that emerges from Wyoming's hunting culture—connected to a place and practice that can be, even today, brutal and wild—seems alive to a degree most art only can hope to achieve.
The exhibition Art of the Hunt is on display at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne through September 5, 2015.
Nathan C. Martin is a writer living in Wyoming. Follow him on Twitter.