Like an animal

Theodore Waddell

Theodore Waddell mixes art world and ranch world aesthetics in his paintings and sculptural work.

Theodore Waddell mixes art world and ranch world aesthetics in his paintings and sculptural work.

PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

Theodore Waddell’s Hallowed Absurdities will be on exhibit through Nov. 18 at Oats Park Art Center, 151 E. Park St., Fallon. A reception and book signing for Waddell’s book, My Montana, is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Sept. 9. For information, visit www.churchillarts.org.

One of Theodore Waddell’s artworks, “A Rabbit for Frank,” consists of a jackrabbit—yes, it’s real—upside down on a roughed-up white canvas. The bone and sinew of its feet are exposed, and its soft gray fur is caked thick with smears of paint the colors of a stormy seascape.

Viewers familiar with ranch life might be inclined to read the piece as a blunt-humored presentation on ordinary taxidermy or roadkill, both common sights in the rural West. Viewers who know a little American art history could easily take it as a corporeal twist on Robert Rauschenberg’s pre-pop-art painting/sculpture hybrids. And some viewers have seen this piece as a simple attempt to shock.

To Waddell, it’s just part of his lifelong effort to process everyday life.

“These thing started really innocently,” Waddell said of the jackrabbit piece and similar works. “I wasn’t trying to be a pop artist. I was just trying to deal with the world I live in. … I ran cattle for 30 years. … If you’re on the ranch, every ranch has a bone pile.” In that context, he said, it’s natural to have death on your mind a lot of the time—and ultimately to become comfortable with its ever-looming presence.

Death is not Waddell’s only theme—his work also exudes a sense of place and a sense of humor. He makes huge paintings that read something like romantic, outsized, Westernized Monets, with a chillier palette and a bigger sky. They’re as mythic and seductive as the wide-open Montana landscapes they portray. His sculptural pieces are wry combinations of items such as cattle ranching tools, hunting weapons, or the skins or bones of animals. In some cases, Waddell has created utilitarian-looking implements for fantastical needs, such as canvas body bags for snakes. He’s taped bullets to jawbones and placed them in polished wood boxes lined with velvet. Again, depending on the viewer’s cultural lens, the boxes could look like antique relic cases or homages to Joseph Cornell.

Waddell, who calls himself “an endangered species—a Montanan native,” has worked on ranches in his home state most of his life, save for a stint in New York during his formative years. While he was in college in Montana, in 1962, he overheard a teacher advising a fellow student to apply to study at the Brooklyn Museum.

“I thought she was talking to me, so I applied for it,” he said. He was admitted, and he promptly shipped off to study art in the big city.

Since then, he’s shown his work in countless gallery and museum exhibits, dozens of private collections and nine embassies. Currently, Waddell has an exhibit at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon. It’s a survey of his mixed media work, spanning back a few decades. For those inclined to dig deeper into the stories behind his art world/ranch world viewpoint, he’s planning a gallery walk-through during a Sept. 9 reception.

Meanwhile, here’s one of those stories. It’s about the paint-smeared jackrabbit.

“One of my heroes was a British painter named Frank Auerbach,” Waddell said. “There was so much paint on the floor, it piled up about six inches thick. That’s who ’Rabbit for Frank’ is a tribute to. Every few days, when I cleaned my palette, I put it on a canvas and made that piece, an homage to Frank. That was for him.”