The great wide open
Between Grass and Sky: Rhythms of a Cowboy Poem
The American West has long been a symbolic place. Elusive to define, it has generally been thought of in an ideological or mythological way. The words “the American West” might immediately conjure up images of cowboys, Indians and scenes from Western films. But there is more to this ambiguous entity than the clichéd ideas expressed by those images. Between Grass and Sky: Rhythms of a Cowboy Poem, an exhibition now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, offers a more contemporary, and perhaps more genuine, take on the American West.
Although you’ll find photographs of cowboys—wearing chaps, boots and Stetsons—riding on the range, they don’t read as part of the typical stereotype. Adam Jahiel’s photographs of working cowboys show the authenticity of the lifestyle. Images of young cowboys playing cards and roping cattle illustrate the ebb and flow of their daily lives—the reality of working so closely with the land and their connection to the environment. The placement on the wall of the group of photographs emphasizes this rhythm and ties the series into the rest of the installation.
The show, designed by Nik Hafermaas of UeBERSEE Design in Los Angeles, takes its inspiration from the cowboy poem “Grass,” written by Texas poet Buck Ramsey. Stenciled by hand in pencil on the walls of the gallery, fragments from “Grass” create a background for the installation. In spite of being relatively small—it only takes up part of the second floor of the museum—the show deals with large, universal themes. It not only creates illusions of physical spaces, but also opens up expanses of imaginative and inner spaces.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors must cross a cattle guard that leads into the exhibition space—a symbolic transition into another world. The windows at the front end of the gallery have been covered with a yellow film creating a warm glow that casts onto the wall, as if the sun were setting in front of a series of paintings by Karen Kitchel. The piece, titled Seasonal Overture, is installed in a grid and depicts grasses in various stages of growth and dormancy. The paintings go from monochrome browns to bright greens to multi-colored and create a sense of the changing seasons and cycles of nature.
One of the most powerful works in the show is an audiovisual piece titled Buck Ramsey’s Grass: Anthem created by the local production company FLF Films. Deceptively simple, the video consists of three well-known cowboy poets reciting Ramsey’s poem combined with a 1993 recording of Ramsey himself. The video includes very close-up shots of the faces of the cowboy poets interspersed with footage of landscapes. It is edited in such a way that the voices of the poets overlap each other and cut in unexpected places. The result is an intimate piece. The video is projected onto an old bar sign—typical of small, Western towns—with a rusted pole and wires hanging out the back of it. The sound from the piece can be heard throughout the gallery and adds another element to the rhythm of the show. Almost like the wind through the grass, the subtleties of the voices can be tuned into or can fade into the background and become part of the entire installation.
The discrete elements in the exhibition work together to create a cohesive whole. The different rhythms of the distinct pieces harmonize to become an immersive environment that, at moments, gives the viewer the feeling of being in a vast, Western landscape.