A Sense Of Place

Artist explores the lost visuals of cowboy culture

By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette

There’s a beauty out there to life on the American highway. It’s not so much the interstate travels that make the experience, but the stops along the way. Small towns paint the canvas of the open road, some forgotten and dusty with old diners serving up their signature meals, while others thrive through the will of their own individual personalities, bearing bright neon signs and distinct landmarks.

Artist Max Kuhn’s latest work, a diorama located in the front window of 411 N. Beaton Street, features a look at small town life. The large, automated display features layers of depth for viewers to explore, accompanied by its own soundtrack.

Kuhn is an artist, an illustrator, and a tattoo artist who found himself getting into art somewhat by accident, though creative design runs through his family, his father working as a mural and portrait artist. Originally from Virginia. Kuhn describes himself as “punk rock,” initially having no artistic aspirations of his own.

Kuhn’s earliest inspirations found a trade in tattooing, and from the experiences that came from “hobo monikers,” the open space culture from his time of riding freight trains as a teenager. It was from these moments his interest in the arts grew, approaching the subject from a “blue collar” mentality.

After spending years on the open road, Kuhn got involved with the Webb Gallery, an outsider and folk art gallery where owners Bruce Lee Webb and his wife Julie represent Kuhn’s work in Waxahachie.

Kuhn was introduced to 100W and Corsicana by the Webbs, as Bruce was a former resident of the program. Kuhn had been wanting to find a residency program for while.

According to Kyle Hobratschk, artist and founder of 100W, Kuhn had been living out of his camper truck for the last decade. traveling through the South and up and down the West Coast. Kuhn would stay in motels for a week or two, letting his audience know he was in the area to share his tattoo art.

“For as long as I’ve been making art, I’ve been on the road,” Kuhn said. “I was limited in what I could do because I was painting in hotel rooms, and maybe I set up at someone’s kitchen table for a few days while visiting. I knew that what I really needed was to dedicate some time and space to making something new and different than I’d done before.”

Kuhn’s latest diorama incorporates the intangible familiarity of life on the road with recognizable imagery of highway travel. The small town atmosphere of Corsicana provided a sense of place for Kuhn in his work, with local icons such as Roy’s Café featuring within the piece.

“I think the influence was about small towns in general and Corsicana offered so many terrific examples of what you see all over the country,” Kuhn said. “Really, it’s more that small towns are the places where you can still see the remnants of when this country was less homogenous and the look and feel of a place was affected by the work and decisions of the people living there.”

The ingrained sense of small town America and highway culture is prevalent in Kuhn’s work, manifesting the artist’s interpretations of a fleeting existence of the small town lifestyle.

“I’m not so much attracted to a specific time period, I’m just moved by things feeling human and organic and there is less of that today,” Kuhn said. “I think my experiences in small towns aren’t easy to pin down or point to. It’s that they offer a relief from a kind of underlying discomfort that I feel other places. Being in a place that feels more human scale, where there is less of a barrier between you and these things that are sometimes hard to notice and harder to influence, yet still dictate our lives. It highlights the how unfulfilling and abstracted our lives are becoming.”

Kuhn’s “cowboy culture” artistry is presented in a journalistic style, where personal stories resonate as a narrative in the work itself.

“I think the personal stories that I’m telling with the piece are also kinda hard to pin down and articulate simply,” Kuhn said. “There are memories of early childhood and a lot about my mother… the longing for safety and protection that we all seek as children. It’s sort of the gradual realization of these seemingly subtle or inconsequential things that have had these far reaching impacts on who we are.”

“Being a traveler on the interstate now there are all these billboards and other infrastructure that preys on the loneliness, fears and desires of the traveler. Christian morality shouted down on you, direct reminders of your mortality and impending judgment, kind of generically erotic advertisements for adult bookstores and cocktail bars, bad bad food sold cheap. And every exit you come to (and increasingly every city you arrive in) are these same cookie cutter businesses that don’t make you feel human, offer no flexibility or expression, don’t accept differing tastes or desires or ‘well, that’s corporate policy’ really make you start to feel trapped with these feelings and drives you inward. That’s what this project is about, unpacking these internal emotions and their consequences and how, for me, it is mirrored in the changing landscape and often brutal history of this country.”

Hobratschk shared his own observations about Kuhn’s work.

“What do you do with such a celebrated cowboy culture that doesn’t really hold court anymore,” Hobratschk asked. “Max is fascinated by the notion of the cowboy. He grew up as a little boy in Virginia, knowing about cowboys and recognizing they represent a certain type of masculinity or romance…. You know the movies and the cartoons…. But you go to the places where they’re supposed to be, and they’re not really there. They are, but we’re reckoning with a different kind of situation today.”

“Max is fascinated in pursuing this thing that is fleeting.”

Kuhn’s work draws a sense of the “known” not just through the imagery, but also from the materials used to make the diorama. For those who have traveled through the small and dusty towns of Americana, the empty bottles, dried vegetation, and bits of debris that line crack and corners all have their own stories to tell.

“It’s really important for me to use materials that have had life before me and offer a kind of warm feeling all on their own,” Kuhn said. “So nearly everything I use has been pulled out of a construction dumpster, flea market or a junk store.”

“The back drop for the diorama is all built from plywood that had been used for years to cover the windows of one of the buildings downtown that is now being renovated. I found an old dusty Alpaca hide rug in the attic of an antique store on Beaton, which is now part of the Corsicana residency program, and turn it into the wooly chaps of a cowboy and the hair of a carved wooden buffalo.”

After Kuhn’s three-month residency, the artist has since bought a small building in Las Vegas, New Mexico, located an hour east from Santa Fe.

Locals and visitors can view the diorama until the end of the year.

One the Net:

Max Kuhn’s Gallery