In Focus: Nancy Davidson’s “Cowgirl Dustup”

Nancy Davidson premieres her Creative Capital-supported project, Dustup, with a solo exhibition opening the fall season at Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York, September 6 – October 6, 2012. Davidson is a sculptor and video artist known for making larger-than-life inflatable sculptures in an ongoing exploration of American icons and Feminist issues. Cowgirl Dustup offers a humorous, absurdist critique of the American cowgirl depicted in popular culture. With this massive inflatable sculpture, suspended in midair and measuring 21 x 16 x 16 feet, Davidson presents the iconic cowgirl as a spectacle to admire, a tall-tale fantasy of western legend.

I recently spoke with Nancy about how this unique project came to be.

Jenny Gill: How did you become interested in making work about the myth and image of the cowgirl?

Nancy Davidson: Growing up in the 1950s, I was introduced to the “cowgirl” character through Hollywood films, television and country western music. I found these characters exciting and empowering. Many women, like myself, imagined themselves as cowgirls. She was a can-do kind of gal. After I was awarded the Creative Capital grant in 2005, I was doing intensive research on western women’s history at the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. I began to wonder, Who were the real cowgirls? While in Fort Worth I also attended the Women’s National Finals Professional Rodeo Competition. Rodeo was absolutely new to me and I was immediately fascinated with the ritual of the rodeo and the women who participated. The rodeo related to other forms of spectacle I’d focused on in my work, so I began video taping rodeos to observe and understand the interactions of the people and animals in the space of the rodeo ring. At the same time, I continued to research western history, western novels and films. I began to understand the distorted perception of cowgirls in popular culture as over-scaled, over-sexualized comic/tragic characters.

Jenny: Can you talk about the role that humor plays in your work and how you came to make giant inflatable sculptures?

Nancy: I didn’t always make work about humor and female power. My first works in the early 1970s were installation wall drawings—very large and often bilaterally symmetrical. The wall drawings were involved with touch because they were rubbings from the floor. At the time, I was thinking about very simple forms and the gestalt of the work—how it translated as a whole image. In graduate school I was captivated with scarification and its meaning in relationship to female beauty, and also with an image of female power used in many civilizations that abstractly shows a woman with her legs spread. Like my earlier wall drawings, this motif was usually bilaterally symmetrical.

In the mid-1980s, I began to feel the need to communicate with my audience more. I realized abstract formal work didn’t engage viewers who were not knowledgeable about contemporary art, yet I was interested in minimal forms. Narrative is not of interest to me, but character is. Humor became a possible way to engage the viewer, knowing that humor is very individual and reactions by viewers are extremely varied.
Fast forward to 1992. I wanted to work larger, take up space in a 3-D way, be able to manage the weight of sculpture myself. I was interested in the carnival, the grotesque and the place of the viewer in these types of spectacle. I read a book titled Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson. The lead character was a gigantic woman who had enormous appetites: food, sex, dogs and more. I had also been thinking about weather balloons and the possibility of working with a balloon as a form, for all the conceptual reasons I stated. So I sent for one and the minute it came I blew it up and knew immediately that it was the perfect material; funny, grotesque, huge, erotic, absurd, attractive. A body with flesh and, very importantly, a body of parts. Male, female…we all have these bulbous parts.

Jenny: How do you see viewers engage with this work?

Nancy: In my work I propose a strong woman, willing to use humor, erotic form and absurd comic gestures to have fun and play. When I use humor I cannot control the viewers’ reactions. As with carnival, the passive audience does not exist. The audience engages with the scale, characters, surfaces and vulnerability of the objects. The pieces may remind you of women, of men, children and babies as well as hybrid bodies. It is all in the mix for me. I am not interested in my audience having specific reactions to the work. In that sense it is open and giving, ready for all.

Jenny: The Betty Cuningham show also includes a video work, All Stories Are True. How does this relate to the inflatable sculpture?

Nancy: All Stories Are True continues my exploration of gender stereotypes and the rodeo. When I was in Fort Worth, I attended the Women’s Championship Rodeo and observed Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee Jan Youren’s last ride after 47 years of competing in the rodeo. Capturing her ride on videotape became a new and significant inspiration for me. I was immediately fascinated with the rhythm of the rodeo and the women who rode in the “rough stock” events. Video added a temporal dimension to my sculpture practice. I envisioned two aspects of my project: inflatable cowgirls and a video focusing on the rodeo cowgirl.

I continued to video-tape rodeos around the country. Women’s rodeo competitions take place in smaller, less well-lit spaces, while the men’s competitions are in large stadiums with excellent lighting and sound systems. The bulls the men ride are bred to exhibit more spinning and aggressive behavior. Reviewing the tapes, the spinning, flying and falling of the cowboys visually drew me to the endless rhythm of the ride. All Stories are True captures the momentary flight of the cowboy before he falls to the ground. The repeating cycle of the eight-second ride shaped the structure of my video.

Jenny: How has your Creative Capital project changed and evolved since you first received the grant in 2005?

Nancy: My Creative Capital project began with my proposal to place enormous inflatable “cowgirls” in public spaces. Early in my research I expanded my project to incorporate video, adding an important temporal dimension. Traveling Dustup to multiple public venues would complete my vision. My goal is to bring the “cowgirls” to public spaces where spectators gather and can engage with the animated spirit of the work. I envisioned their installation/inflation as events in themselves. The portability of Dustup provides venues with the capability of displaying the piece as a tribute and celebration of the “can-do” attitude of women’s individualism.

Nancy Davidson: Dustup will be on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York September 6 – October 6, 2012.

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