From Buffalo Bill’s roadshow spectacular to John Ford’s Technicolor Wild West films, the cowboy looms large in this country’s imagination. The original American idol finds new swagger in the works of Denver-based painter Duke Beardsley. Tearing the familiar icon down to the studs, the artist lets his modern-day cowboys and cowgirls run amok among Pop art neon colors.
As a sixth-generation Coloradoan, the artist has embodied the cowboy’s life since he was old enough to sit on a horse, spending his childhood working on his family’s cattle ranch in the southeast corner of Douglas County. “From a very young age, I remember some cold mornings on horseback being told to keep up,” jokes Beardsley. These dawn patrol memories endured when he left for California to study at the ArtCenter College of Design, as wranglers and stallions claimed their territory on his canvas. “In art school, you’re exposed to many styles,” he recalls. “But someone told me, ‘you already know what you want to do. I bet every time you close your eyes, that’s what you see.’ That was a wake-up call.”
Growing up, Beardsley loved the classics. “I looked up to Western art greats like Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington with this overwhelmed boy’s imagination.” His own work teases that nostalgia, disrupting sentimentalism with a Pop art vocabulary of color and pattern. His signature vivid hues lend a hyperreal atmosphere to his graphic, hard-edge silhouette portraits. The figures become more surreal in his line-up series, where he repeats that seminal outline of horse and rider into a checkerboard motif, until each figure blurs into expressionism. “I like when a Western art devotee comes to me and says, ‘Man, I love the way you paint real cowboys, but why did you paint them turquoise?’ I like challenging the icon.”
Though playful, Beardsley’s process begins with old-fashioned grit, as he’s “drawn to modern-day working cowboys and cowgirls.” For inspiration, he rides with ranching family and friends across the West, sketching ideas or shooting photos or video “because you can’t ask these people to stop and hold a pose.” In between sketches, they don’t hesitate to put him to work. “I ride and rope, so I help out where I can.”
In the studio, Beardsley reviews the images, sketching out the most compelling gestures and features of both horse and rider. He then draws the composition in charcoal on massive canvases and adds dimension with layers of watery grayscale acrylics. Color comes more spontaneously with vibrant oil paints, “though I endeavor as best as I can to get these bright hues to behave themselves.”
Behaving colors or not, it’s clear cowboy culture remains ripe for dialogue. Says Beardsley, “The icon can take a lot, and I am throwing a lot at it.”