Wade finds his inner cowboy through cowgirl art
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Over the course of his professional life, Bob Wade has wandered into numerous odd corners of the arts world. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley – in the mid-’60s or “right in the thick of things” as he puts it – Wade made airbrushed paintings, “these funky, floating shapes,” he says. His 40-foot-long “Giant Iguana” sculpture famously stood over Greenwich Village for years, from atop the Lone Star Cafe nightclub. Wade’s “Smokesax,” a 70-foot saxophone whose materials include an upside-down Volkswagen, was commissioned for Billy Blues in Houston.
But the art that seems closest to Wade’s heart are the cowgirl works. Wade, who returned to his native Austin, Texas, seven years ago after a stretch in Santa Fe, feels a tight connection to the cowboy culture: In “Daddy-O: Iguana Heads and Texas Tales,” the 1995 biography that documents Wade’s wild ride through the art world, clubbing from Santa Fe to New York and encounters with Dennis Hopper and Kinky Friedman, there are photos of a young Wade, dressed head to toe in cowboy duds. One photo has him grabbing the belt buckle of Roy Rogers, his second cousin; another has Gene Autry checking out Wade’s pistol.
“When I was a little kid, the rodeo would come to town, and Roy Rogers was the big drawing card,” said the 60-year-old Wade. “We got to go behind the chutes with Roy and he’d visit with my mom. So that’s all back there, ingrained in me as a little buckaroo.”
Some 30 years ago, after his Berkeley-inspired “freak art” period, Wade began to connect with his inner cowboy. It began with “Waco,” a 1975 black-and-white photo oil on linen. The image, which Wade blew up from a small photograph and hand-coated onto the canvas, ended up in the Whitney Biennial in New York. The photo featured a handful of tough-looking West Texans holding guns and snakes.
“Waco” got Wade started on the Wild West idea, but the concept needed further refinement. A few years later, when Wade came across the cowgirl image, he saw what he was looking for. The cowgirls combined eroticism, a connection to the West, strength and nostalgia; it also appealed to Wade’s taste for the offbeat and subversive.
Wade began searching through junk stores for old cowgirl postcards. Some of his finds were images of genuine cowgirls; others were Hollywood cowgirls, like Claudette Colbert, from movie publicity photos, or women photographed on a staged cowgirl set, nowhere near the West. All of them worked for Wade. He began to combine his interests, making hand-tinted, airbrushed blowups of the postcard cowgirls.
Wade has been doing cowgirls in that fashion ever since. Recently, he had an exhibit, “25 Years of Cowgirl Photoworks,” at Fort Worth’s new National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum. An exhibit of the cowgirl pieces is at the Thomas Ingerick Gallery, with a reception for the artist set for Saturday, July 5, from 7-9 p.m.
Wade, who earned a bachelor’s in art from the University of Texas and a doctorate from Berkeley, finds a glamorous quality in the cowgirls. “The rodeo cowgirls back then were the Serena and Venus Williams of the day, the women who were real razzle-dazzle heroes,” said Wade. “They were show biz; it was big-time entertainment when the rodeo came to town. They went for vivid makeup, elaborate costumes.”
In his works – like “Hood Ropin’,” an image of a cowgirl on the hood of a 1939 Willis, photographed at Madison Square Garden of all places – Wade believes he adds to the larger-than-life quality of the cowgirl. What began as postcard-size, black-and-white pictures become large-scale images, digitally printed on canvas. Wade airbrushes color, and sees the decades-old women come to life.
“I feel like I’m giving that image another go-’round, bringing it back to life,” he said. “And the person comes more to life than when they were on a postcard in black-and-white. They’ve gone from 6 inches to 4 feet. It has a little to do with history and documentary.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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