In an atmosphere of rapidly trading artwork, it is not possible for Cady Noland to agree or dispute the various claims behind works attributed to her. Her silence about published assertions regarding the provenance of any work or the publication of a photograph of a work does not signify agreement about claims that are being made. Ms. Noland has not been asked for nor has she given the rights to any photographs of her works or verified their accuracy or authenticity.
Recurring in Noland’s work in a variety of permutations, the cowboy is the quintessential American symbol. In the prototypical hero of the cowboy, anybody can find the values of unrestricted liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence formulated it, and invest their own desires in such idealistic self-realization. As a rugged, handsome, and paradigmatic icon of masculinity, he is the ultimate example of an industry-fabricated cultural construct, mythologized and distanced from his true historical origin. At once synonymous with freedom, independence, and chivalry, the cowboy was elevated from his original roots as a lowly ranch-hand by the imagination of Hollywood and hyped-up masculine performances from John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood. Indeed, it was the cowboy’s utter universality that made him the perfect vehicle for marketing Marlboro’s filtered cigarettes, not only to women but also to men. Subject to scrutiny in the 1980s and 1990s after a period of heightened public health awareness that lead to a virulent anti-smoking campaign (as well as a controversy following the smoking-related deaths of several former Marlboro Men) the Marlboro brand acquired the macabre nickname, “Cowboy Killers.” Seeking to distance America’s ostensibly wholesome mythology from the increasingly negative connotations of smoking, Marlboro relinquished what is still considered by many today to be the most powerful advertising campaign in history. Here, the extraordinarily compelling image of the cowboy is re-scrutinized by Noland, revealing its extreme potency and concurrent fiber of mortality.
Noland engages in imagery and objects that appear benign in their stark familiarity, while harnessing the mass-cultural vernacular to stimulate suspected emotions and subvert expectations. With Blue Cowboy Eating, Noland re-orients our collective ideal of what a cowboy should be—here he is caught awkwardly crouching while mid-meal, spooning food into his mouth rather than reaching for the gun in his holster. The image intervenes in our own subconscious expectations, taking the familiar and exposing the banality behind the images that so often aim to provide consolation and shared experience. Noland frames the cowboy in a moment of vulnerability—his eyes glance toward the viewer with surprise, as if inadvertently exposed. With one image, the cowboy is instantaneously removed from his pedestal of indomitable strength, reinforcing Noland’s interest in the capacity for the media to influence collective judgment: “Noland reminds us that as the brokers of a multitude of rights and wrongs, the media is now able to point a scrupulous finger at that politician, movie star or celebrity who has transgressed our tacitly defined and protected rules of moral conduct, or rather, a collective fantasy of what they should be. Anyone can be made into a hero or villain because minor celebrity is just another disposable object of mass consumption.” (David Bussel, "Review: Cady Noland at Paula Cooper Gallery," Frieze 17, June – August 1994) Moreover, the thin mirrored surface is alluring in its reflective indication of perspectival space, but in fact offers little with regards to depth. Like the flat silkscreened image of the hero that Noland purloins, what the artist reveals is the superficial nature of distinctly American identity constructs as depicted through the vernacular of consumer culture and mass media. With the mirror, Noland puts the viewer in the image, aggressively and instantaneously implicating him or her in this process of construction and collective experience.
Evoking the tumultuous period of the 1960s and 1970s, Noland’s work addresses a dystopian vision of Americana where certain icons and mythologies end in terror and violence; her works have cited imagery surrounding such events as the Vietnam War, the Manson family murders, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With her piercing sociological re-appraisal, Noland critically investigates how mass media culture packages paranoia, commodifies violence, and markets fear. In its provocation of humor, shame, abjection, and humiliation, the cowboy is at once de-heroicized, thereby interrogating the romanticized images that shape American identity. By propagating doubt, Noland punctures the fabric of the American dream, conjuring the loss of innocence that occurs alongside the public tragedies—including murders and assassinations—that destabilize guarded ideological notions of safety. In doing so, Blue Cowboy Eating is a sort of inquisition of American culture by means of the capitalist structures that inherently act as its means of transmission. Lane Relyea described: “As surveyed by Noland, America appears a country driven delirious by its own sense of mission. Committed to a destiny that won’t reveal itself, it must contend with all the doubt and paranoia that intervenes in revelation’s absence, must endure an ambivalence it can’t abide. And yet the only thing perhaps more terrifying to America than its own symbolism is the secret desire to let that symbolism die.” (Lane Relyea, "Holy Crusade," Parkett 46, 1996, p. 73)
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