Billy Schenck, "the Grandaddy of Contemporary Western Art"

Billy Schenck's deep and abiding connection to the West is revealed here in his own words. He describes his influences and the approach he takes on in his work. As the "Grandaddy of Contemporary Western Art" Billy Schenck is a pop western icon, see for yourself....

How do you see your work challenging the western myth?

I didn’t think I was challenging it, I was perpetuating it, expanding it on a daily basis much the same way as the universe is expanding daily.  Once I began seriously studying western history it quickly became obvious that the mythology breeders were burying the facts as quickly as they were happening in real time.  Dime novels were being written about Billy the Kid, exaggerating all aspects of his life while he was still alive. He literally became a mythological character before he died.  Then there was Buffalo Bill Cody who began mythologizing  the “west” on a far grander scale, even on an international scale. The first movie ever made was in 1903, “The Great Train Robbery”, a western.  From then on everyone, everywhere that had access to a local movie theater could see the rapidly expanding mythology of the west. 

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It looked real, it was on film.  The hats, the clothing, the horse hardware etc. all became exaggerations of what real cowboys looked like.  The new exotic looking cowboys were being painted for illustrations for magazines and books.  Reality sort of lived in the shadows.  One of my favorite lines in film occurred in 1962 when John Ford released, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Near the end of the film a newspaper man is on a train heading back east.  He is interviewing the Jimmy Stewart character who is also leaving the west and has been falsely living a lie.  His legacy has been that he (Jimmy Stewart) was the man who shot Liberty Valance.  It is a myth, he knows it but the rest of the world doesn’t want to know that at all.  The newspaper man tells Jimmy, “This is the west, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.  That statement has stuck with me ever since.  It wasn’t unlike when Moses stood on the hill and God told Moses the ten commandments.  John Ford spoke, I listened.

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And thus began my first completely mythological character, Cliff.  Cliff began appearing in my captioned paintings around 1997. Then came Geoff, and much later Phaedra.  The beauty of Phaedra, other than being beautiful, was that she was already a Greek mythological character, a greatly flawed character.  I identify very deeply with flawed characters.  On rare occasion I have been accused of that myself. 

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I took Phaedra from Greece and had her row a canoe to America.  She traveled to the southwest and began riding her horse naked across the southwestern deserts.  She has been on a mission known only to herself and now also has a entourage of wolves that follow her everywhere.  This is a small part of how I literally am expanding the known limits of western mythology.

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How does Pop art, printmaking and film inform your work stylistically?

Pop art influenced my art stylistically.  The image making of Warhol and Lichtenstein, particularly Lichtenstein’s ability to make paintings that had no trace of a human being having painted them.  Flat hard edged areas of paint replicating a comic book image.  I created a style of projecting photographs (from western movie stills) and drawing outlines to demarcate every area of light and shadows and then painting in (filling in) all the areas in flat hard edged areas of color.  It was a perfect marriage of photorealism and a paint by number system of painting.  By definition this process could be considered a classic approach to making pop art.  My whole process came from popular culture. The printmaking became serigraphs.  Doing serigraphs was a perfect medium to translate my paintings into, nothing was lost in translation.  Same as Warhol.  His paintings are silk screen prints on canvas.

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Your work seems to strike a balance between a romanticized notion of the west and revealing its darker, satirical truth to the myth of the west.  Why do you feel that’s important?  Can you speak more to that?

When I am not busy expanding western mythology I revert back to very romantic renditions of the west, particularly of the Navajo.  It’s a subject matter along with location that I’ve never been able to get of my system.  

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When I am not busy expanding western mythology I revert back to very romantic renditions of the west, particularly of the Navajo.  It’s a subject matter along with location that I’ve never been able to get of my system.  

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I definitely have a gallows sense of humor that is evident in the caption paintings.  Using the western genre being crossed to my pop culture roots allows me to explore social and political issues.  If you look carefully enough at the male/female paintings, the message is always cryptic, there is always a sexual tension. 

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Other paintings are pre-apocalyptic.  In my world, painting these themes or alluding to eminent disaster keeps me from acting out in real life.  The only way anyone would know anything was wrong with me would be to checkout how many speeding tickets I get in a year.

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What’s your personal commitment to the narrative of the west?  Where did it start?

My commitment to the western narrative began in 1967 when I saw the first spaghetti western films of Sergio Leone.  I was in art school a the Kansas City Art Institute studying everything and everyone “contemporary”, the radical new etc.  I wasn’t remotely interested in anything western with the exception of the high desert landscapes of Wyoming which is where I spent most of my summers growing up.  Sergio Leone got my attention.  He did it again in 1968 when he released “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. 

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I moved to New York one week after I finished art school and Sergio’s “Once Upon A Time in the West” was released.  I capitulated, I was lucky enough that New York had two memorabilia shops that had more than a million old movie stills.  That became my original source of western subject matter.  New York was where I launched my western art career. 

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My commitment was easy.  I never looked back.  I wanted to do in painting what Sergio had done to film.  He had permanently altered how a western film could look, he also impacted movie making world wide.  That has been and is my goal with western painting, to expand their known universe.