The Western paintings of Tracy Stuckey: iconic images with a twist

Inclement weather notwithstanding, the opening reception in Brooks Gallery last Tuesday of Tracy Stuckey’s new work was very well attended, with a sizeable contingent of WVU faculty & students making the hazardous trek down from Morgantown for the event. The gallery itself was virtually packed for the artist’s talk, with visitors spilling into the hallway.

Curator and art historian Marian Hollinger, who introduced Mr Stuckey to the crowd on Tuesday, spent much of the evening in conversation with him. As it happens, Ms Hollinger, like Stuckey, is a past resident of Albuquerque, having lived there for two years as assistant director of the University of New Mexico art gallery, as well as having lived in California, so the art of the American Southwest is well known to her at first hand.

About Tracy Stuckey’s paintings she offers the following observations:

The new works by Tracy Stuckey provide a personal view into some of the issues of the New West. When Stuckey, a Floridian, went to graduate school in New Mexico, he was intrigued by the West and its mythology. As he had had no direct experience of the American West, he assumed he would find the images that film and television had so firmly instilled in the American psyche. And he did find them, but with a twist.

The New West, particularly New Mexico, is an amalgam of native cultures, Anglo culture, and now Angelino culture from L.A. Whatever one may have considered western culture in the past has nearly disappeared in the generations of transplanted population. Stuckey has captured this fragmented culture with near-perfection. His technique is to collect images from various sources, combining them with his own drawings, to create the figures who inhabit his canvases. The finished product has several light sources and disjunct objects supplementing the figures. A careful reading of the images in the gallery–both singly and as a group–yield humour and trenchant social commentary–that indicate how very well, indeed, Stuckey has mastered his subject matter.

Among the more interesting comments to the artist about his work was from a woman who found the paintings “scary”, and who said she was “worried” about the individuals portrayed in the paintings. Mr Stuckey seemed surprised and bemused by the question, and confessed that his concern for the individuals portrayed in his paintings was slight.

Which is putting it mildly. Tracy Stuckey’s paintings are, frankly, scathing. Their subject is the latest version of an old story: of one culture displacing another, of a younger, more vibrant culture displacing an older indiginous culture by right of might, though in this case the might is not military but monetary, and driven by media.

In the past, cultural displacement was always intrinsically ideological, but in this most recent version of cultural displacement in the American West, the ideological dimension has become a void. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the struggle between Franciscan missionaries and native tribes was, among other things, a struggle between competing cosmologies.

In this latest chapter of Western history, however, the newly dominant culture is a culture of appearances only: of mere gloss and image signifying nothing. If traditional satire exposed the truth hidden beneath the surface, Stuckey’s paintings of the New West expose the veneer beneath the veneer.

The Tracy Stuckey exhibition continues in Brooks Gallery, Wallman Hall, through February 28.