On the walls of New York's Venus Over Manhattan gallery the weathered face of Texas cowboy Clarence Hailey Long, Jr., the original Marlboro Man, stares moodily off into the distance from under the brim of his Stetson. With a cigarette hanging casually from the side of his mouth and a bandanna around his neck, the portrait taken by Leonard McCombe in 1949 is a picture of rugged American masculinity. Meanwhile, hanging to its left in contrast, the comical Pee-Wee Herman is sitting tongue out, mounted clumsily on horseback in Herb Ritts' 1987 'Pee-Wee Herman on Horse'.
The pieces are part of the gallery's current exhibition '#Rawhide' a show about the role of the cowboy in contemporary art, from the nineteenth century to present day, chronicling his rise from peasant, to hero, to homoerotic pin-up. 'The theme is a kind of low-hanging fruit. Everyone likes cowboys but for some reason no one's done a cowboy show,' says Adam Lindemann, the gallery's owner and principal, who worked with curators Dylan Brant and Vivian Brodie to bring the show to life. 'I think it's interesting to see how these different artists have addressed it. They really have very different things to say, all coming from completely different places.'
In the exhibition, which includes works by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Cady Noland, Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince to name just a few, the cowboy is explored stylistically as well as emotionally through pieces such as Robert Mapplethorpe's erotic 'Boot Fetish' portrait to Edward S. Curtis' nostalgic gold tone photographs of wild landscapes from 1904. By chronicling these works, the show holds up a mirror to American culture and reflecting the evolution of country's values and desires. 'It's nice to think about what each [artist] is saying about the American dream through the cowboy,' says Lindemann. 'And I think that ultimately what can be drawn from this is that the cowboy is just an empty vessel that can be filled with our own projections.'