True West

Work like hell, get drunk, beat hell out of them that's got it coming: The cowboy art of David Rathman

The typical David Rathman drawing shows the silhouette of a lone cowboy--and he is always lonesome, even when not strictly alone--against a vast and unvarying horizon. He's only a shadow, really, but you can make out a few telling details--a bandolier, for instance, or a whiskey bottle. The way he slumps in the saddle suggests either infinite weltschmerz or really nasty hemorrhoids. He's killed before and will probably kill again, although he'll never enjoy it. His pose is generally one of mournful contemplation.

And then there are the captions, which hang like cartoon thought-balloons over the cowpokes' heads: "Regrets? I've had a few"; "I learned them sad songs early on"; "Let me introduce myself. I'm the cold, hard truth."

David Rathman loves cowboys. And not in the arch way that some people love, say, bowling or daytime soaps. His studio--a smallish room warmed by a space heater, with large windows overlooking an industrial stretch of north Minneapolis--is filled with cowboy paraphernalia, from books of Western movie stills and paintings by cowboy/artist Charles Russell to paperback Louis L'Amour novels. When people suggest that his cowboy drawings--a selection of which is on display in a joint show with Amy Cutler at the Walker through March 23--constitute some sort of postmodern critique of America's violent frontier mythology, Rathman is likely to shrug and grin. His affection is abiding and true.

Rathman's sincerity likely owes something to a childhood spent in Choteau, Montana, a cattle-ranching town of 1,500 souls located a few hours west of nowhere. "My father was a teacher, so we were sort of town kids," he explains. "But I grew up around real cowboy kids."

Rathman, now 44, hardly cuts the figure of a cowboy himself: He's a bit on the small side and wears round, wire-frame glasses. But he has something of a typical Westerner's laconic demeanor--a pleasant and unhurried manner, and a way of chewing on his thoughts before speaking. "I was always sort of the class clown in high school. I liked entertaining people with my drawings. I always liked that theatrical element. And I guess I had a little flair for it."

In particular, Rathman admired the cartooning style of Mad magazine, where he submitted samples of his work. Though the only response he ever got was a four-word note of encouragement, the influence still shows: His sepia-tinted drawings are framed in the style of cartoon panels and their captions often add an ironic twist to the images. "Part of that interest in illustration I think has to do with growing up in a little town," he explains. "I can't think of the first time I went to a museum. So, really, my only exposure to painting was through reproductions in books."

Another of Rathman's influences was, as you might guess, the movies--in particular, the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. "We used to go down to this little movie theater on Main Street to see all those Westerns. And I'd think to myself, 'This could have happened here.' But then you step outside and it's all very mundane. The town just sort of ends.

"Something I always liked about those little towns in Montana was, you'd come to the edge of town and there'd be buildings, and then--boom--nothing. It was like the whole world was out there beyond the edge of town. There's something comforting about that, but also something confining and foreboding. I remember cruising Main Street my last year of high school and thinking I couldn't wait to get out and go someplace else." Although Rathman moved to Minneapolis in 1979 to attend MCAD, it's probably no coincidence that one of his first solo exhibitions, at New York's Clementine Gallery, was called "To Hell with Them Small Towns."

Rathman crosses the studio to retrieve a paper bag full of Polaroids--stills from Western films, he explains, photographed directly from the television. "I was really attracted to that Clint Eastwood character," he continues. "I was sort of introverted and real small. I guess those movies offered kind of an alter ego. He squints, he spits, says four words, and he's got the world. What kid wouldn't want to be that?"

In composing his drawings, Rathman often quotes from the sun-bleached imagery of Leone's Westerns. Indeed, his work can seem a semi-reverent burlesque of Eastwood's hard-boiled screen persona--of machismo turned sour and mercenary, and brutality pushed to the brink of nihilist parody. "I like those images from films right before or after a confrontation," the artist explains. "I like those gestures that are just a suggestion of what's happened."

Much of the fun of Rathman's work--and his drawings are exceedingly fun to look at--comes from the juxtaposition of this Hollywood iconography with mundane snippets of text from movies, country-music lyrics, and even existentialist philosophy. (Not idly does Rathman cite both Beckett and conceptual artist Ed Ruscha as influences.) In one of his earlier drawings, for example, the silhouette of a gunfighter is transposed over "Today's Schedule":

11:00 a.m. Get up
11:00-11:30 Sober up
11:30-Noon Eat
Noon-10:00 p.m. Work like hell
10 p.m.-3 a.m. Get drunk
3 a.m.-3:15 Beat hell out of them that's got it coming
3:20 Go to bed

As darkly humorous as such work is, though, Rathman is more than a clever ironist. His mini-narratives reveal a filmmaker's gift for brisk visual storytelling, as well as an honest, even nostalgic regard for the debased legends of the American West. In fact, the most resonant piece in the Walker exhibit might also be the least ironic--an image of a lone cowboy riding through a disintegrating Western town. Hanging in the sky above him is the lament of a true romantic: "...Wishin' all these old things were new."

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