THE NEW WEST: Crossing the Divide

By on July 18, 2017

The next generation is heeding the call of one artist’s wildlife art.

‘Reverse Ravens’ by Andrew Denman

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Andrew Denman’s engaging art is definitely not the kind of nature painting you’d typically find hanging at grandma’s and grandpa’s house—that is, if the tastes of your elders were anything like mine.  He doesn’t cotton to an idealized “Old West” or one that no longer exists, nor does he seek to document wildlife as if making photo-inspired illustrations for a field guide.

Denman, who opens a one-man show at Astoria Fine Art in Jackson this week, is in the vanguard of a new contemporary movement taking hold in animal art. It’s far more colorful, brasher, irreverent and frankly more provocative.

If granny and gramps want to get a good sense of what appeals to emerging younger generations of art collectors—and perhaps add some splash to their own walls—they’ll receive an eyeful in Denman’s daring series of fresh works.

As gallery owners, artists and collectors readily attest, the Western art market finds itself at a soul-searching crossroads. Some have a less than optimistic outlook on where it is headed, as digital stimulation is producing shorter attention spans in the adult children of Boomers. But I’m not one who believes the value of tactile original art will ever go away.

Yes, romanticized interpretations of wildlife, landscapes and Western culture (including portrayals of cowboys and indigenous people) once dominated local gallery scenes. And it’s true that works by deceased masters still are coveted at auction.

But realism has fallen out of favor for those 40 and under who regard traditional Western art (which includes portrayals of wildlife) as passé, boring, overly sentimental and kitschy.

It’s not that Generation Xers and older millennials aren’t drawn to wildlife scenes. They just want art that delivers bigger visual impact. And they have different sensibilities. Many collectors, especially those living in the city, would rather have a large full-framed painting of an animal than the stuffed head of a dead one displayed as a trophy.

As many readers here know, I’ve been writing about wildlife art for more than 30 years and will continue to highlight the exemplars of a genre so closely tied to the regional identity of the Rockies.

Denman, a northern Californian who makes frequent research trips to Greater Yellowstone and other untamed corners of the globe, including Africa, wants viewers to behold the beauty of animals but he has no interest in painting mere pretty pictures that function as decorative wallpaper.

With his “totem series,” he stacks animals on top of each other, sometimes to make contrasts, to illuminate their precarious status in the wild as with his bighorn sheep piece, or even to challenge our conventional black and white way of thinking about species. 

Playing off the power ascribed to white buffalo, Denman explores with the latter another species deeply embedded in the mythology and oral traditions of indigenous peoples—ravens. “Ravens are particularly potent symbols, not just in Native American folklore, but through numerous cultures, often acting as messengers, omens, and diviners of fortune both good and bad,” he says. “White ravens, however, are of particular significance, representing spiritual cleansing.”

Denman’s show at Astoria, “A Different Animal” interestingly overlaps with Andy Warhol’s pop art “Endangered Species” series now on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. 

It’s safe to say that Warhol, a creature of nature-depraved Manhattan, had little sophisticated understanding of the imperiled wildlife he painted and the environments they inhabit. He was all about drawing attention to the superficial power of celebrity iconography and consumerism in modern society.  For him, the cause cé·lè·bre status of endangered species was no different than starlets or talking heads on TV.

Denman and his contemporaries, while borrowing from some of the elements of Pop art, actually have a passion—and respect— for nature. And it is woven into their narratives.

“Anyone who tells you they can predict what will and won’t become ‘popular’ is lying, but certainly those of us in wildlife art have noticed more interest in increasingly contemporary forms of expression and less stubborn emphasis on the kind of ‘natural historical’ and sporting art scenes that dominated the last century,” Denman said.

I asked Denman why does wildness matter to him?

“From the basic standpoint of human survival, there is plenty that can be said about respecting our planet and conserving our natural resources,” he replied. “I’m hardly the first one to say it, but we need to live on the interest of the capital our natural heritage generates, and stop dipping unsustainably into the principal, squandering this rich trust fund that’s been heired to us, so to speak. On a broader and more spiritual level, the wilderness, wherever you find it, is not there just for us, but for all other creatures that call the whole planet home.”

Denman hopes his paintings serve as daily reminders, to serve as counterpoints to nature art routinely written off as the same old, same old. Let there be no doubt, he succeeds. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen. Autographed copies available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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