Culture Klash: Big Apple Saddles

By on March 21, 2018

In his new series, artist Borbay paints Western cowboys into New York neon

Gary Cooper takes in the neon lights of NYC.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Teton Valley artist Jason Borbet, a.k.a. Borbay, is a New Yorker to the core. He spent his childhood on Long Island and a decade in Manhattan attempting various jobs in the Big Apple. He tried stand-up comedy, a job at the Trump Organization working on legal documents circa 2004, creative recruiter, businessman and finally a full-time artist. (The latter apparently fit. In 2010, Time Out New York readers voted him Most Creative New Yorker.)

He spouts off cross-streets and locales from the city like he never left. Best burger? Molly’s Pub in Gramercy. Favorite spot for a cocktail? Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle where there’s live piano music, too. Mets or Yankees? He is a “long-suffering Mets, Jets and Islanders fan” who happened to sub for Anthony Weiner, pre-scandal, playing pick-up hockey at Chelsea Piers.

It’s no wonder, then, that Borbay’s move to Victor, Idaho, two years ago would cause a slight creative (identity) crisis. “I really didn’t want to come and just appropriate Western art,” he said. “I figured if I moved from New York and started doing these pastoral cowboy scenes right off the bat, people were going to run me out of town.”

But Borbay has handled it gracefully in his new East meets West series. The first piece, “When Gary met Jerry” depicts stoic Gary Cooper circa The Westerner sitting atop his horse in front of the Seinfeld diner, (Tom’s Restaurant) neon lights ablaze. The juxtaposition works.

Cooper had always been on the front of Borbay’s mind thanks to Tony from The Sopranos. “What ever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type?” Borbay said, emulating a thick New Jersey accent.

“I wanted to take a piece of me from Manhattan and a piece of my new life from living in the mountains and merge them together,” he said.

During Borbay’s two years of Teton living, he’s become known for his neon paintings. From Jackson motels like the Antler, Rawhide and 4 Winds to the glow of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, the Western neon was the first thing Borbay connected with when he moved out West.

But unlike his new series, his nighttime paintings have always been empty. They’re stark and devoid of people. The focus is on the art of the sign itself. “They’re not apocalyptic or dystopian, just empty in a way that when you see it, it’s a very intimate experience between the viewer and the space.”

Borbay was thinking of ways to change that, he wanted to include a figurative aspect to the neon, and to connect more with his new home. But he couldn’t just abandon his New York roots. He had grown an extensive neon photograph collection from the city and expanded it west.

“There are so many people who paint horses beautifully and cowboys beautifully and landscapes beautifully and put them all together,” he said. “It’s something I don’t feel is part of my language or I’m the kind of person who should be telling those stories visually.”

A Horse Walks into a Bar…

The creative spark ignited at the Knotty Pine Supper Club in Victor, Idaho. The bartender was telling Borbay about a cowboy who brought his horse into the bar. The cowboy wanted to give the horse Maker’s Mark, the bartender told him. The horse, meanwhile, stood right in front a neon sign near the entrance—exactly where Borbay pictured him.

It probably helped that, at the time, Borbay was spending hours watching westerns. He told his wife, Erin, “I’m going to put Gary Cooper in front of the Seinfeld diner.” He didn’t write it down or talk about it much, but the idea never went away.

Now, after finishing the first piece, Borbay is already exploring the series’ vast possibilities. He wants to paint about seven cowboy juxtapositions, and has already started on number two: “The Good, The Bad, and The Fanellis.” Think Clint Eastwood with a fat cigar, and a couple of horses in front of SoHo’s Fanelli Cafe.

“I’ve probably, in the last week, watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly about 10 times,” he said. “There are some good characters in there, but there’s something about Clint Eastwood.”

While watching the films, Borbay takes close to 100 screen grabs, searching for the right composition and character. Then he matches his top five subject images with neon backdrops from New York. Just creating the composition takes two days, which doesn’t include viewing films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly 10 times. PJH

Borbay paints from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday at the Ascent Lounge in the Four Seasons.

 


About Erika Dahlby

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