The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists
directed by Les Blank, Marureen Gosling, and Chris Simon
at the HFA, April 14-26
From the western coast of this country comes a documentary which affirms the expansiveness and individualism at the heart of the U.S. of A. Documentarian Les Blank's hour-long exploration of the life of Garry Gaxiola, "The Maestro, King of the Cowboy Artists," will gladden the heart of anyone who fears for the fate of art for art's sake amidst the vastness of late twentieth century American capitalism.
"The Maestro" is essentially the story of Gaxiola's talent and energy for self-transformation. The film is pleasantly laid back right from the start, following Gaxiola during the early days in Berkeley when he toted a hand-painted sign proclaiming "Cafe Guerbois," from hangout to hangout. Gaxiola describes his decision to take on the persona of a cowboy simply, saying it was his fantasy and "If you want to do anything passionately enough, you can do it."
At first glance, Gaxiola's gaudy, sequin-bedecked costume and psychedelic lizard skin boots may scream overkill more than dedicated passion. But footage of Gaxiola as he works shows a jack-of-all-trades clearly inspired by a deep reserve of energy and practical know-how. For thirteen years, the Maestro had his own day, Maestro Day, in his hometown of Albany, California. The event, free to the public and held in the high school gym, featured Gaxiola singing modern day cowboy ballads, playing the piano and painting quick cowboy portraits on stage (and one thousand homemade cookies baked by his wife, Alice).
The Maestro has filled his backyard with cow sculpture, created hundreds of clay cadillacs (the modern cowboy's horse), painted with air brushes and fabric paint and appliqued sequins and playing cards onto his works. Though the work does a very good impression of kitsch, it is distinguished by its relentless variety and Gaxiola's unique, informed stance towards the art World.
Taking Andy Warhol as his most frequent target, Gaxiola launches pot shots, often witty ones, just as often literal, paint-ball ones, at the money grubbing art world. The commodification of art sickens and provokes Gaxiola, who rebutts Warhol's statement, "Business art is a much better thing to be making than art," with the ardent, "Art is a religion, not a business." More stunningly, the Maestro does not sell his paintings, preferring the freedom to do what he wants when he wants to the lure of the greenback.
Towards the end of the film, Gaxiola travels to see Christo's yellow umbrellas in the Southwest desert. He strides into the beautiful hills as he loads his paintgun. As he prepares to deface the umbrellas with a vigilante's red paint (a scene Blank does not film), he explains that it isn't that he doesn't respect Christo. Rather, he is "trying to becomes part of the history of his umbrellas." This type of language punctuates the otherwise campy (and fun) side of Gaxiola's personality with the happy result of widening the intellectual scope of the documentary.
Gaxiola lives vigorously and with all the defiantly independent spirit of the cowboy. With the example of his extraordinary life backing up his attitude, the whole takes on rather more than the sum of its parts. The Maestro bright paint stands out against the muddied horizon of the conventional art world with a surprising vigor.