Clash of the Cowboys

Vintage cowboy figurine, circa 1950
Art Gallery of Calgary puts on a darn good act

Every year Calgary is enshrouded in the mythology of the West – a romanticized place where identities and inhibitions are switched literally at the drop of a hat, as everyone tries to get in on the cowboy act. With his exhibition, Giddy-Up! Or a Darn Good Hat Act on view at the Art Gallery of Calgary, Andrew Hunter captures our longing for this mythos and spreads it wide for all to see. Collaborating with acclaimed Winnipeg-based photographer, William Eakin, Hunter pays homage not to the real Wild West, but to a carefully constructed cowboy named Gibby, a Frankenstein’s Monster assembled from bits and pieces of cowboy kitsch.

Initially shown at the Walter Phillips Gallery in 2004, Giddy-Up draws its inspiration from the faux western tradition of early 20th century Banff, a fictionalized cowboy culture aimed at tourists – as mirrored in the Calgary Stampede. It is all just a “Hat Act,” a country-music term coined to describe a performer who is country only in name and costume.

This sensibility is personified in Gibby, a suburban cowboy who has never been further west than Kitchener. His story, set in Ontario in the ‘60s, is told by Andy, a young boy whose interaction with Gibby is marked by both hope and tragedy. The story is key to understanding Giddy-Up, as it breathes life and context into the exhibit’s found objects, artifacts, and artworks. Elements such as the broken bronze statue of a rider on a horse, or a painted Lone Ranger move from simply being curios to becoming integral parts of the story of a man whose identity is based on a reality he will never truly know.

Like any good storyteller, Hunter weaves a tale that is both wildly implausible and crushingly real. His assembly of objects and text, in conjunction with Eakin’s photography, paint a moving portrayal not only of a solitary figure, but also of our desire to believe in something more – something based on, yet beyond the objects we surround ourselves with every day.

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