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Grading originality of Western Art: Out West Show edition

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We here at Big Sky State Buzz appreciate almost all physical art and the impact it can have on people.

However, if there’s one thing that frustrates us it’s that there’s a common belief that Western Art you see during Western Art Week in particular looks almost the same every single year.  And indeed, we’ve seen that to be the case with our own eyes in some instances.

It’s art that’s weirdly consistent year in and year out. But, how true is this broad-sweeping claim? Is it an unfair assumption?

That view of Western Art is why this year we’re going to visit as many of the art shows as we can and grade them on our “Originality Index Rating.”

Now, keep in mind that if something scores low on our index, it doesn’t mean that we think it’s a bad piece of art. We just feel that it’s something that you’ve likely seen before and will continue to see again.

Some people like those pieces of art, and if that’s you don’t feel bad about it. It takes talent, time, energy and desire to create those types of pieces.

However, we’d like to strive to see physical art that pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a part of our town’s biggest weekend of the year.

So, let’s get onto the grades shall we?

Please note that these are all in random order and that at the end of this article we will give the show an overall rating to encompass everything we aren’t able to grade due to physical time and length constraints.

First up is this piece from Todd Conner


This piece, and the several pieces around the show like it, get our Originality Index rating of 2 out of  10.

This type of piece firstly is too plain colored for our liking. It shows a somewhat typical western scene and just doesn’t do a lot to catch our eye. The woman clearly is the focal point, so that’s kind of interesting because it’s not a typical cowboy riding his horse kind of thing, but, well, there’s just not much else going on here that gives us any kind of desire to keep looking at it.

Moving on is this piece from Larry Pirnie out of Missoula.


This piece gets our Originality Index Rating of 8.5 out of 10.

This piece has lots of dynamic elements going for it. There’s the color of the horses that make them seem alive. There’s the perceived movement of the horses, and the variety of colors such as green, pink, lavender and blue. The way the tops of the animals are cut out from the background adds another element that until now I haven’t ever seen before. Pirnie has several other pieces designed with that kind of border and it’s a cool touch to an otherwise interesting piece of art.

The only reason we’d rate this as a 9 instead of a 10 is that really at the end of the day it’s still a painting of a bunch of horses, and there have been lots of other types of paintings like that created throughout the years. However, what makes this picture work is what the artist does with this group of horses and his artistic license he takes with it.

Contrast this piece with our next one from Steven Lee Adams titled “Light at Midday”

IMG_20150319_131208837_HDR This painting gets our Originality Index Rating of 4 out of 10.

Firstly, let’s get to what we think works in this painting. The colors of the trees and marshy areas are somewhat artistic, almost impressionistic.

Looking at this you don’t feel like it’s just a copy of a photo, which is a good thing. It’s our opinion that an artist should create something that separates himself or herself from just copying real life or a photo of something in real life.

However, that’s about all this painting has going for it in terms of originality. It’s a pretty simple scene — a field of cows standing in front of trees. There really isn’t any one thing that catches your eye, and while we dig all of the different colors you can find in this painting, it’s just not all that interesting at the end of the day.

Next let’s take a look at John Gawne’s “The Years Bring Wisdom.”


This painting gets our Originality Index Rating of 6.5 out of 10.

With this painting we love the cool contours of the rocks behind the man and his horse. There’s a strong red color that permeates the entire piece and you can’t help but stop to look at it because of that. The way the artist uses shadows and light indicates a strong understanding of how to capture light effectively, as well. If you look at it up close you even see that the light is reflected accurately  This piece was done by a talented artist who knows the ins and outs of how to create a realistic painting. If I were to critique anything with this piece it’s that there’s not a whole lot of movement happening and that the background is far more interesting than the foreground.

However, I’d be more than happy to have this piece hanging on my wall as it’s a nice piece of art.

Next, let’s look at a bronze sculpture from Darrell Peterson


This sculpture gets our Originality Index Rating of 5.5 out of 10. 

In this piece, the momma bear is hunting for rainbow trout as the baby sits behind her to watch. The beauty of it is how it uses the shelf as a piece of the scene, with the fish hanging below the ground the bears stand upon.

We here at Big Sky State Buzz love these types of sculptures because of their physical representation that add an extra element for the viewer.

If we were to give any kind of critique to this piece it’s that the momma bear appears to be looking not at the trout she’s clearly pawing at, but instead something off in the distance. Whether that’s intentional or not, we’re not quite certain.

Regardless, though, this is a great piece of original art in the way it’s framed on its physical canvas. That’s what makes it creative in our eyes even if there are hundreds upon hundreds of similar bear sculptures you’ll likely see this weekend and why the score is a bit lower than it might be otherwise.

Next, is an interesting moose piece titled “Moose Study” by artist CM Jones.


This painting gets our Originality Index Rating of 8 out of 10. 

The first thing we notice about this painting is the variety of colors filling in the moose. It’s a cornucopia of color that makes it interesting to look at in a real artistic way.

The brush-stroke textures evident in this painting makes it “feel” like a physical piece of art and we love how the more you look at the middle of the moose, the more you start questioning whether there’s something deeper hidden in there, perhaps a landscape of some sort. We’d say the natural colors chosen help create that subtle illusion.

One critique we’d give this picutre is that the artist does not use any kind of light and shading to create any kind of 3-dimensional effect. That may be partially because the colors are so varied and adding the shadowy effect to the moose would have made this piece a bit too busy. But, we can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if there were light and shadows worked into this piece. Also, ther’s only just the one moose against a white background, which some might find it to be a bit less dynamic. We feel that the variety of color makes up for the fact that it’s only one animal in frame, however.

Next up let’s look at Kim Lockman’s portrait of John Wayne


This one is a little different in that it’s appeal hinges on how much you enjoy the late great western movie star John Wayne.

This obviously is designed as a real-life replica, and in that regard it’s done very well.

Because this is our Originality Index, though, we’re giving this one a 2 of 10, and the reason being is that if you do a quick Google search of “John Wayne portraits” you’ll find hundreds.

The unique aspect here is that it’s a portrait from Kim Lockman, a well-known area artist who’s done quite a few pieces that we’ve seen before and have enjoyed.

We’ve just never been a huge fan of the Duke, and, well, this portrait doesn’t do a whole lot for us either. That said, this review isn’t meant to take anything away from Lockman.

Her art is always pretty fun and often includes some really well-done celebrity portraits. This picture just doesn’t do much to budge the needle of creative Western Art.

Next, and finally, here’s a look at Rebecca Tobey’s “Sunset Serenade”


This piece gets our Originality Index Rating of 1 out of 10.

We’ve seen variations of this type of art at all kinds of Western Art shows in the past. While it takes talent to do such a design on a skull and bones, it comes across as having a bit too much of a Kitsch factor.

We can see the appeal for someone who comes to Western Art Week and wants to find something that seems like an “authentic” western item.

However, if I were ever going to put this in my living room, the most I’d ever feel about it would be a big “meh” and probably the more I saw it, the more I’d feel less enthused about it.

This leads us into our final point. All art is subjective. Do you have a problem with any of our ratings? Great, let’s start a dialogue on where you feel we erred.

We might not ever agree, but the beauty of all art is that we don’t have to agree on how “appealing” it is to anyone else but your own self.

Overall, I give the entire Out West Show a Originality Index Rating of a 5 out of 10.  Which again, speaks to the originality of the art and not the overall quality.

There were enough cool pieces of art intermingled with a lot of pieces that just had nothing appealing to us to land it right in the middle. Also, keep in mind that these pieces we did review do not in any way represent all of the other pieces that we did not review.

In the best-case scenario, any time you have a show like this one, each artist, and sometimes each piece, will vary to such a degree that there’s only a few common characteristics that they share.

At the end of the day if you think that all Western Art looks the same, you’re probably going to find examples of how that’s still the case at this show. However, if you’re willing to open your mind a little bit and consider that while much of Western Art can look the same, that’s just a small representation of the entire genre of art, and that saying it’s all the same is a bit of an over-simplification of a broader range of art.

Keep checking back to www.bigskystatebuzz.com later this week and weekend for more Originality Index Rating reviews of some of the other Western Art Week shows.

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