Bucking the Myth of the American Cowboy

A clutch of contemporary artists are interrogating and subverting the symbol’s macho allure.

Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #48, 2009.This paLaurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #48, 2009. © Laurel Nakad...
Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #48, 2009. © Laurel Nakadate, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, NY.

Of all the stereotypes that feed the dream of the American West, none is nearly as stubborn or rigid as that of the cowboy. Ask 10 friends to draw a cowboy, and chances are they’ll hit many of the same notes: the horse, the Stetson hat, the Wrangler shirt, boots, jeans. Other possible iconography: chaps, a bolo tie, an ornate silver belt buckle, and a cigarette hanging from the mouth of a square-jawed man worthy of a Marlboro ad. Not optional in most minds: The figure is white, male, and heterosexual, with the outsize swagger that comes from living a rugged, outdoorsy life.

Given its specificity and longevity, this stereotype takes a lot of work to erode or expand. But dozens of contemporary artists are working on it, making the figure of the cowboy their own in much the same way Lil Nas X made a twangy country hit his, or Megan Thee Stallion makes bedazzled rodeo wear hers. They are finding or forcing their way into the archetype, reenvisioning and remaking it in the process. For this spring’s Desert X biennial, in the Coachella Valley, Tschabalala Self reimagined the classic bronze monument of a cowboy on horseback, replacing the rider with a rotund Black maternal figure, while Mario García Torres created a choreographed field of slow-moving mechanical mirrors that buck like bulls but are always tame. And for a pop-up curated by Antwaun Sargent at the Hannah Traore Gallery in New York, marking Helmut Lang’s cowboy-inspired fall/winter 2023 collection, Quay Quinn Wolf contributed a deconstructed saddle sculpture consisting of scrappy woven leather strips draped over a steel armature.

© Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech; Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Caught in the Act, 2023.

This fall, however, will see the biggest art rodeo of all: the exhibition “Cowboy,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which opens September 29 and is cocurated by Nora Burnett Abrams and Miranda Lash. Featuring 27 artists, including many women and artists of color, “Cowboy” is the most ambitious attempt to date to subvert, invert, deflate, and queer the myth of the American West. “The idea of the cowboy, as it exists in pop culture, is by no means neutral,” says Lash. “There’s an implied racial superiority in how the cowboy is typically depicted as white, straight, and male, almost a hypermasculine icon. We wanted to honor the lived experience of people working with animals today, but also take on why the cowboy has become so symbolic of American identity.”

Certainly, cowboys were never as white or straight as Hollywood would make it seem. Scholars such as Michael N. Searles and Albert S. Broussard have documented many cases of Black people serving as cattle herders, horse wranglers, and more. And the goal of “Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy,” at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, this spring, was to showcase images of “drivers, fiddlers, cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, cooks, singers, bulldoggers, and broncobusters with African heritage.” As Amanda Hunt, who curated the small but pioneering survey “Black Cowboy” for the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2016, says, “History is richer than it’s been taught, and we’re still unpacking all of that—that’s why cowboys are in fashion.”

Courtesy of Rafa Esparza and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City; Photo: Joshua White, courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles.

Rafa Esparza, Al Tempo After Sean Maung, 2021.

Several artists today are also doing their own research-driven projects to correct the popular whitewashing—or “laundering,” to quote Abrams—of the more complicated economic, racial, and social realities behind the myth. “Artists can make legible or visible episodes in cowboy history far more than what’s been fed to us by Hollywood and the entertainment industry,” she says.

Colorado artist Yumi Janairo Roth and LGBTQ scholar Emmanuel David, for instance, have been researching the under-recognized contributions of Filipino performers—Ysidora Alcantara, Felix Alcantara, and Geronimo Ynosincio—to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Both Filipino Americans themselves, Roth and David spotlight these performers by running their names in lights across historical theater marquees—a project featured in the Denver show.

The Tulsa-based artist Nathan Young, who is enrolled in the Delaware Tribe of Indians and has Pawnee Nation and Kiowa Tribe ancestry, has, for his part, been researching the history of ranching and rodeos on both sides of his family. “I knew my family was full of cowboys. I lived with them, but I’d never given deep thought before to the horse tradition of my Native American, Indigenous legacy,” says Young, whose installation in Denver will feature family keepsakes such as jackets from the Indian National Finals Rodeo and a tooled leather belt buckle sporting an ancient Pawnee symbol. “He’s using these objects to pull apart the binary of cowboy versus Indian,” says Lash. It’s enough to make the old schoolyard game of cowboys and Indians as ridiculous as it is racist: How can you possibly play the game if cowboy and Indian are one and the same?

Courtesy of Richard Prince Studio.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1989.

For his solo performance in the Denver show, Gregg Deal, who describes himself as an “artist and disrupter,” is exploring the underpinnings of both cowboy and Native stereotypes. “I’m trying to figure out the ways in which some of these cowboy tropes dovetail with Native identity,” says Deal, an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, who plans on wearing a cowboy-type hat as well as using indigenous materials like dried pine nuts and the tin noisemakers known as jingles for his performance. “The sort of stoic Indian who doesn’t say anything is definitely part of this character,” he says.

While some artists are doing deep historical dives, others are finding cracks in the cowboy stereotypes that allow them to enter the present-day picture themselves—even, or especially, as women or members of a marginalized or demonized group such as immigrants. They are re-creating the cowboy persona in their own image, at a particularly loaded time when civil rights are being hotly contested—as is the question of who gets to be an American. Amy Sherald, the recently minted art star who is perhaps best known for her portrait of Michelle Obama, did a memorable canvas of a Black cowboy wearing an equine belt buckle, part of her larger all-American portrait series.

In a similar vein, the Ghana-raised, Portland, Oregon–based artist Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe paints himself and other Black men in cowboy paraphernalia, giving his sitters dignity, personality, and a seat at the table of history, much like Kehinde Wiley does when he paints the hip-hop generation in regal settings and poses. Quaicoe says he fell in love with cowboy culture—“everything about it, the way of dressing, the hats, the craftsmanship of the boots and buckles”—as a kid through his uncle, a doctor who had previously lived in Houston and collected cowboy hats.

Collection of Devon Musgrave, Courtesy of Ana Segovia and Galería Karen Huber.

Ana Segovia, Regaining Lost Confidence, 2019.

Of course, plenty of artists have modeled themselves on cowboys, from 19th-century Western frontier artists to the paint-slinging Jackson Pollock to the self-styled Marlboro Man Richard Prince, all drawn to what Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield describes as “a freedom of expression and behavior that puts them outside of societal boundaries.” But an identification with cowboy culture looks different when it’s coming from those historically denied access to the American dream.

The artist Laurel Nakadate says that pushing people to have a conversation about her identity was part of the impetus behind “Lucky Tiger,” the series of Western “pinup” photographs she made in states like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana in 2009, for which she posed in a cowboy hat and underwear or other suggestive getups. Standing astride a horse or in front of a Dodge truck, she looks like the star of a racy country music video, pure cowgirl fantasy. But, in fact, Nakadate is Asian American, and her Japanese American father, grandmother, and great-grandparents were all imprisoned in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during World War II. “It was important for me to travel in this space, to be free in this space, when my family was never free in the American West,” she says.

Nakadate’s work also touches on, and in one way incorporates, the fetishization of women in a ranching culture built on male dominance. As part of “Lucky Tiger,” Nakadate enlisted strangers to participate in performances that involved them handling the photographs after inking their hands, so their fingerprints appear on and around images of her body. Her series title came from a lascivious comment made by one man as he touched a picture of her wearing tiger-print bikini bottoms: “Lucky tiger,” he said.

Courtesy of Gregg Deal.

Gregg Deal, The Last American Indian on Earth, 2013–2014.

In paintings and video works, artist Ana Segovia comes at the gnarled issues of gender, sexuality, and violence via the charro figure, the aristocratic or landed version of the Mexican cowboy who famously wears highly ornate, formal suits. In the Denver show, one video has Segovia and another performer in these suits, traditional-looking except for their brilliant turquoise and raspberry colors, prodding and slapping each other in highly ritualized ways. The film is equal parts violent and seductive. “I want to show the nuance of how I’ve always felt toward this masculinity, how I’m attracted and repulsed by it,” says the artist, who lives in Mexico City. The work’s title, Aunque Me Espine la Mano (“Even If I Prick My Own Hand”), comes from a song by the legendary ranchera singer Jorge Negrete, whom Segovia calls “Mexico’s Frank Sinatra, if Frank were a charro.”

Just how rigid is the idea of the charro, and how important is it to Mexican national identity? Segovia says that even during the pandemic, when tailors were desperate for work, five of them refused to make charro suits in such vivid (read: feminine or gay) colors for the project before one dared to break the taboo. Segovia also uses a David Hockney–esque color palette of cerulean blue and coral red in paintings as a way to queer the subject of the cowboy.

There’s a class difference in Mexico between the Andalusia-inspired, aristocratic “charro” figure and the working-class “vaquero,” which is closer to the American cowboy, and the artist rafa esparza tends to be more interested in the latter. Raised in East Pasadena, California, by Mexican immigrants, esparza says he grew up immersed in the ultramacho, often homophobic Norteño culture, which originated in the northern borderland region of Mexico. He was forced to wear cowboy boots to school—hardly ideal for playground games like kickball—until he and his brother rebelled.

Collection of Evan Boris and Monique Meloche; © Amy Sherald, Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photo: Joseph Hyde.

Amy Sherald, What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American), 2017.

Then, as an adult, even before he was out, he discovered that the L.A. gay nightspot Club Tempo had a room devoted to Norteño music, where queer cowboys could dance together in their sequined, custom vaquero shirts. He recently painted a powerful diptych celebrating this space, and has teamed up with the photographer Fabian Guerrero to make a documentary looking at a few of these communities across the West. Excerpts from the film, focusing on Club Los Rieles in Dallas, will figure in an immersive video and photo installation making its debut at the Denver show, complete with an adobe floor where a queer Norteño couple will dance and leave their boot prints.

Esparza says that he now finally has the distance he needed to reconnect to Norteño culture, despite its extreme and sometimes violent machismo. “Knowing that I was queer at a young age and having this kind of masculinity imposed upon my little body, I grew up resenting it,” he says. “At the same time, that’s the music my family and I would listen to for celebratory gatherings like weddings, birthday parties, or quinceañeras, and there are so many beautiful memories. My relationship with Norteño culture is very complicated, but I do love it.”