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Mild, Mild West


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at Hokin Kaufman Gallery

For most of this century New Mexico had a law that allowed visitors to carry a six-shooter while traveling but required them to stow their guns safely away half an hour after arriving at their destinations. Apparently you were expected to dispatch your rivals quickly. One year ago Randall Deihl, a painter from Massachusetts, arrived in Santa Fe and aimed squarely at local artists' cornball depictions of the west. And with his eye for peaceful green spaces, jewel-tone palette, and sharpshooter wit, Deihl has so tamed the usual view of cowboys and Indians that this show of new paintings might well be called "The Mild, Mild West."

Even the legendary shoot-first lawman looks so calm in Deihl's Wild Bill Hickok that it appears he must have tamed lawless towns by example. Deihl bases his portrait on one of the few photographs of Hickok's final days in Deadwood, where he was later shot in the back and killed. The original James Butler photo (Deihl credits him in the painting itself) shows Hickok only from the shoulders up. Deihl makes this a full-length portrait, however, and dresses his subject in a foppish black velvet suit with purple trim and white ruffled shirt protruding from the sleeves. Deihl further emasculates Hickok by shrinking his famed gold-and-ivory-handled revolvers to half size. The town of Deadwood, sprung in the painting from Deihl's imagination, surrounds Hickok. It too is shrunken. Deadwood's buildings look like a newly finished model-railroad town: they stand pristinely regular, every board in place. The dirt road where Hickok stands alone looks freshly swept. The only other hints of life are the small, neatly lettered shop signs for the bank, saloon, and rooming houses. In the piny mountain backdrop, neat feathery trees seem to have come straight out of Currier and Ives. Skaters in mufflers and fur-trimmed coats dwell in these hills, not badmen and Indian spirits.

This is a dude portrait. Like the eastern heir to a western ranch, Deihl requires a degree of refinement even while working the land: he can civilize with a vengeance. And the irony --and strength--of Deihl's work is the result of his resistance to the harsher edges and machismo of the western-style paintings that fill Santa Fe's galleries.

Deihl thoroughly domesticates Buffalo Bill Cody, the man who may have done more than anyone else to annihilate the thunder from the plains, with the stroke of his gentle brush in Landscape With Buffalo Bill. He represents this violent folk hero as a worn-down house husband and surrounds him with a peaceable kingdom--a Constablelike landscape complete with grazing animals, a yard that's implausibly lush, and radiantly green trees. Within this landscape the famous killer of bison and Indians stands listless, beer-bellied and much smaller than life, deprived of his charisma by Deihl's static rendering. An old, fat squaw stands with him under a stockade gate as if waiting for nothing more exciting than the arrival of the day's mail.

Deihl is an observer not of the real west but of our shifting perceptions of it. He never offers a reliable vision of America's frontier days; instead that history seems to reinvent itself continually. Deihl disrupts even recent memories--for example, of movie battles between red men and palefaces. He also reshapes the present west, reminding viewers that no matter how hard they may try to hang on to the heroic past--by building homes in period styles, amassing western collectibles, or buying souvenir art--we can't recapture the old mythology.

Deihl's vocabulary allows him to play games with time. He paints broad vistas where eternal rock-solid mountains loom over shifting, wind-worn dirt roads and eroded adobe houses. Taos Pueblo shows a ramshackle home painted in muted desert colors, its age-old pueblo style foiled by an obtrusive electric meter. A bright yellow Big Wheel sits in the yard, and a chrome blue All detergent bottle screams from the window. Though both these plastic objects are small--nearly minute in relation to the sweep of the landscape behind the house--their familiar forms dominate the canvas. In this near-native scene Deihl forces the viewer to zero in on the consumer aesthetic. And that honesty bars any escape to the world that retro western styles are meant to re-create. Deihl blocks that imaginary time travel in his paintings by strewing them with the detritus of contemporary culture--it's like finding empty Coke cans in the Roman Forum, which may well dampen one's commune with the Caesars.

Deihl's other paintings explore just how far images of the old west can be reduced. In Cowboy Motel and Arrow Motel, the neon motel signs depicted date the "old west" not to the 1850s but to the 1950s. Deihl renders the signs in great detail, right down to their flickering lamps and rusted frames. In a bit of sleight of hand, he places the signs not on the crowded Santa Fe streets where he saw them but on imaginary deserted roads. These are the kinds of places you stop when you just can't drive any farther. Cowboy Motel lies on a road surrounded by a flat plain dotted with luminescent green cacti standing in regimental lines (Deihl's dude sense of order) under looming azure storm clouds. Even in the dust bowl the artist sees things lushly. Deihl said that when he was a child his family stopped at such places because the kids loved the cowboy mystique, and they'd play Fort Apache in the parking lot. No more. Now such neon- signed motels lie in seedy parts of town or on roads the interstates have made nearly obsolete. Deihl's view suggests the passing of two eras: that of serious cowboys and that of serious cowboy kitsch.

101 Ranch is the equivalent of the bonsai wild West, trimmed and primped into a delicate display. In it, a red credenza table is set with western collectibles: a foot-long Indian rug, a clay pot fitted with a pint-size yucca plant, and a goofy wooden cowboy- and-horse toy. Behind the table Deihl has reproduced a broadside for the 101 Ranch, the west's most famous dude ranch in the 1920s. The poster promotes the ranch's "Real Wild West Show," portraying cowboy riders and Indian sharpshooters--who at the time were already re-creating and sentimentalizing a vanished era. This faux altar to frontier days reduces history to an interior designer's well-laid tabletop. Deihl paints it with an almost air-brushed softness in recently out-of-vogue Santa Fe pastels, mocking the tastes portrayed; his static style reinforces the tabletop's ahistoric past.

One wonders what will happen to Deihl's painting once he's settled more firmly into his new home. Will he continue to sharpen his vision, or will he succumb to the power of the myths? Deihl says his next group of paintings will exclusively feature portraits of old west figures. Hopefully, he won't succumb. Then again, if he did any more damage to the locals' self-image, New Mexico might require eastern immigrants to stow their brushes a half hour after arrival.

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