Italian artist Andrea Bianconi created a whole body of work about the American West before ever seeing it. His visit to Houston for the opening of his show "Pony Express" at Barbara Davis Gallery was his first trip to the country, let alone Texas.
The American West has been a source of fascination for generations of Europeans. That fascination was fueled in large part by Karl May, a 19th-century German who wrote a whole slew of "Wild West" novels before ever visiting the United States (and then he only made it as far as Buffalo, New York). May's books are scarcely known to English-language audiences, but they have been translated into more than 30 languages, with over 200 million copies sold. Starting with a silent movie in 1920, they were made into more than 20 films, the majority shot in Yugoslavia. Those (schlocky) movies based on May's books paved the way for the Italian "Spaghetti Westerns" of the 1960s.
May's books idealized and romanticized the American West. They centered on the "noble savage" Winnetou, a wise Apache chief, and Old Shatterhand, the chief's white blood brother. Untold numbers of little European kids grew up pretending to be Winnetou and Shatterhand. Seventy years later, the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s replaced the hokey idealism of May's novels with cynicism. Films like Sergio Leone's seminal work, Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars), were far from romantic, presenting the Old West in all its sleazy brutality.
"Andrea Bianconi: Pony Express"
Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200.
Through March 3.
Bianconi shares some of May's romantic attitudes toward the Old West, but he's cut it with a hefty dose of Spaghetti Western cynicism and added a liberal serving of camp.
At his show, Bianconi's giving away a bunch of sheriff stars emblazoned with his self-portrait -- as John Wayne. He uses corny western icons like horses and cow skulls in a wall drawing, and he lionizes cowboy boots in a painting as packed with decorative patterns as a Klimt (Klimt's are still way better). But Bianconi's giant statues of quintessential cowboy John Wayne and his horse are the centerpieces of the exhibition.
Bianconi found a big fiberglass figure of Wayne on a horse (they're available on the Internet for a couple grand) and unseated Wayne to show cowboy and horse separately. Wayne stands ridiculously bowlegged without his horse. Bianconi even left part of the saddle still attached to Wayne's crotch. The artist glued a plaster horse head to the saddle horn, and the whole thing looks pretty freaking phallic.
Counteracting all that manliness, Bianconi obsessively decorates Wayne and the horse. He covers their surfaces with dots of paint, swirling patterns of yarn, beads, zippers, buttons and feather boas. Wayne looks like a transvestite at Mardi Gras, and his horse looks like a My Little Pony savaged by preteen girls with glue guns.
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Bianconi applies ornamentation to all of his sculptures and most of his paintings. He takes a variety of mass-produced plaster statues and gives them the same kitschy makeover. But in the end, it somehow just isn't quite enough. His work reminds you of the output of some crackpot "outsider" artist, but it's not as obsessively inventive as, say, your average art car. It reminds you of Mardi Gras costumes, but it's not as glamorously spectacular. Give me a Mardi Gras Indian any day.
Still, aside from the shortcomings of the ornamentation, the work has some intriguing elements. Bianconi has cut the back out of the John Wayne figure and inserted little plastic spyglasses. You can hide behind the fiberglass bravado of Wayne and spy on others.
Karl May's books depicted a 19th-century romantic vision of America's West. The cynical attitudes of the Spaghetti Westerns reflected the disillusioned cultural and political climate of the '60s. Maybe Bianconi is reflecting the cultural and political climate of George W. Bush's America. The cowboy mythology that captured the imagination of so many Europeans has been appropriated by Bush for his own arrogant, bullying ends. "Wanted: dead or alive." "Bring it on." The bow-legged stance of Bianconi's John Wayne is aggressive. The peepholes offer secretive monitoring for the paranoid. But Bianconi has turned the cowboy into a laughingstock, poking fun at his machismo and undermining the grim expression on his face by speckling it with gold spots. The cowboy is no longer a hero or even an anti-hero. He's become a swaggering buffoon.
I'm wondering how many little European kids still want to play cowboys and Indians.