L. Kent Wolgamott: Texan puts contemporary spin on western art

When they hear that his work contains images of "cowboys and Indians," yucca plants and tornadoes sweeping across a barren landscape, people want to tag B.C. Gilbert as a "western artist."

But the Texan is far from that.

His brightly colored woodblock prints and paintings use words to make pop cultural and sociological references, find horses having homicidal ideas via thought bubbles and never come close to resembling the cliched Southwestern "trading post" art.

"That (western artist label) has caused me problems in the contemporary art world," Gilbert said. "People see the subject matter and that's the first thing they think ... I'm a cultural interpreter -- a professor I had in grad school gave me that label. And I like the color. I'm a positive person and optimistic."

Gilbert was at the Great Plains Art Museum last week, building a large, multi-part painting that will be constructed to look like a '50s era signpost with a giant arrow, the inside of which will be filled with a painting. On top of the arrow will be a pair of blocks, one reading "Flat Land," the other "Flat Water."

"Flat Land, Flat Water" is the title of Gilbert's show in the museum's lower level space that opened Friday and will run through Oct. 29. Gilbert will return to Lincoln in mid-October with the completed sign to install it for the last couple weeks of the exhibition.

The sign will be the piece he contributes to the museum's permanent collection, the final act of his time as its Elizabeth Rubendall Artist-in-Residence. That residency included working on the sign in the museum's lobby, an artist talk at Friday's opening and conducting a pair of workshops for students.

Thursday morning, Gilbert was working with eight kids, teaching them woodblock printing technique using rubber stamp material rather than the linoleum Gilbert uses for his prints.

"It's softer material, easier to carve," Gilbert said. "We don't want them to slip and stab themselves."

Gilbert, who specializes in the woodcut prints, makes graphically strong, heavily lined images in the prints and creates lively, surprisingly colored paintings -- all of which draw on the area in which he grew up.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact I grew up in the Texas panhandle," said Gilbert, who teaches art in high school and college in Wichita Falls. "I grew up in an area that is rich in history. I was really fascinated with it."

That area had conquistadors, Native people and cowboys, who turn up in Gilbert's prints and paintings. But they're not historical depictions. Rather he makes commentary, sometimes pointed, sometimes funny in the images.

"Now Showing," for example, takes the image of a pair of Native warriors fighting with spears and shields and turns it into a movie poster, stimulating thought about the appropriation and fictionalization of Native images and stories for popular entertainment.

Similarly, "Contemporary Cowboy" and "Modern Indian" use the words to say one thing, the seemingly very traditional images to say another. Those images, however, owe as much to pop art as to the photographs and paintings of the distant past. 

"Progress" is a biting triptych on the development of weaponry, the first image, a "Clovis Point" arrowhead, the second, a "Bullet," the third a "Mushroom Cloud."

That's plenty serious. But there's some good fun in the paintings, be it "Fester," which I'm guessing is a take on the "Gunsmoke" TV character, the canvas and frame adorned with bottle caps and a soda bottle or the cowboy on a green horse roping a longhorn across the two panels of "Long Arm."

Then there's "Brake" that finds a cowboy sitting on the side of a horse lying on the ground. Inside the horse's comic-book-style thought bubble is a skull -- he's thinking bad equine thoughts.

The exhibition's gallery guide smartly cites the famous quote from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Gilbert does that in his paintings and prints. But he puts a critical spin and distinctive visual sensibility into that legend that makes "Flat Land, Flat Water" resonate. Call it contemporary western art.

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