David Rathman grew up in Montana, but he is not a cowboy. He has never ridden a horse, nor has he roped, rustled, or branded anything. He is, however, a storyteller. Working on paper with sepia-toned inks, he takes a very peculiar and particular look at one of the founding myths of the American nation: the settling and so-called taming of the Wild West. The story he tells is not the glorious triumph of American manifest destiny advocated by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845. Rathman’s West is more the poetic landscape of the literary works of Samuel Beckett filtered through the lens of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. In each case, the artist’s drawings are tinged with a dark, illogical humor that subverts our national myth of the cowboy’s rugged individualism. In its place, he unveils a narrative landscape of the Wild West that is one part existentialist wasteland and two parts comic irony.
The first thing one notices about Rathman’s drawings is their minimalist figurative style. He draws his cowboys, farmhands, gunfighters, prairie maids, and rustlers in shadowy silhouette against wide open expanses of cream-colored paper. They occupy economically rendered and somberly suggestive vistas that are as culturally iconic as any of the locations in John Ford’s films. In fact, Rathman culls his images from a wide range of visual materials, including the nineteenth-century landscape paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, westerns by Ford and other Hollywood masters of the genre, and their spaghetti incarnations by Italian directors such as Sergio Leone. Rathman’s West, like Ford’s and Leone’s, is complicated, morally ambiguous, and decidedly antiheroic.
Strangely enough, the crucial motor force of this work is linguistic rather than visual. Rathman’s drawings manifest their absurdist effects through a juxtaposition of these all-too-familiar images with bits of appropriated language that the artist scrawls across their surfaces. His characters spout droll aphorisms, remorseful eulogies, and twisted bits of existential wisdom such as “Every day above ground is a good one,” “I learned them sad songs early on,” or “Wishin’ all these old things were new.” These phrases—drawn from sources that include the dialogue in western films, song lyrics, and quotes by philosophers or politicians—are mixed and matched with images to provoke odd non sequiturs that undermine our common understanding of the conquest of the West. As in Ford’s revisionist film The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne plays a cowboy of completely questionable character, Rathman’s protagonists are high plains drifters who rewrite aspects of the Western lore by infusing it with the artist’s own desperate brand of black humor.