I address the action and energy of the horse and rider in conflict, one aspect of rodeo. I intend to present it in a contemporary painterly manner without the romance and sentiment that so often dominates Western Americana subjects.
-Walter Piehl Jr.
Walter Piehl, Jr., known for his vibrant, expressionistic Western-theme paintings, captures the energy of a rodeo, especially of the horse and rider, in his piece breezy music: sweetheart of the rodeo. The work consists of a bucking horse and mounted cowboy figure, which is composed of sketched gestures and rapid movement strokes. The figures are shown in full body profile, facing the right, and are on the upper two-thirds of the canvas. The cowboy is wearing a lime green shirt, a pencil sketched hat, and has his left hand gestured upward into the air. The horse is layered with washes and splatters of colors including rust, blue, purple, black, and magenta. The background is white mixed with similarly lighter toned, swirling, washes of color. Piehl, a one-time rodeo rider himself, applies his painting in an Abstract Expressionist style. His drawing on the surface of the painting suggests the motion and action of horse and rider. Thanks to his teacher, draftsman Robert A. Nelson, and his own natural abilities, Piehl has a mastered command of drawing. His work proudly portrays North Dakota’s artistic and cultural heritage.
This work is included in a series by the artist entitled “sweetheart of the rodeo.” While the artist’s style has changed over the years, the concept of the work has remained constant. The series is dedicated to the sweetheart of the rodeo, the bucking horse. His intent is to address the action, energy, and conflict between the rider and horse and to present it in a manner of a contemporary artist. The series has toured the southwest as well as the Midwest.
Plains Art Museum purchased this piece in 1991.
I like paradox, contradiction, color, line, and putting on paint—but not necessarily in that order.
-Walter Piehl Jr.
Walter Piehl, Jr., known for his action-packed paintings of “real” Western genres in an Abstract Expressionist style, has emerged as an important North Dakota artist.
Piehl was born in Marion, ND on August 1, 1942. He received his Bachelor’s degree in art from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He earned both an MA and an MFA from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Piehl has taught at the University of Minnesota, Mayville State College, as well as Valley City University. He is currently an art professor at Minot State University where he has been teaching since 1970.
Piehl grew to love horses and the rodeo at an early age when he would assist his father, who was a horse dealer and part-time rodeo producer. Having tried his hand at riding, Piehl later worked as a rodeo announcer for thirty years. His artistic talents and his love for the rodeo led him to explore the creative possibilities of representing the fast and furious action of the sport on the painted canvas. Piehl, having grown up in a state without the benefit of an art museum, became a teacher to not only pursue his love of painting, but to teach and share his appreciation of art with others.
Piehl’s work has been highly respected within the esoteric genres of Western art; but is little known outside this genre. Piehl is a vibrant, creative artist, who has explored a variety of media and subjects. His work is often misunderstood or worse, misinterpreted because of the subjects he portrays: rodeos, cowboys, cowgirls, horses and its defining ephemera. Piehl’s creativity transcends his subject. He expresses his subjects in a manner and style that is indicative of their active nature, but he never descends into the cliché or retrograde. Piehl himself has been critical of an art market that merely seeks to replicate Remingtons and Russells. Piehl demands more of his artistic expression. Curator Gordon McConnell has written that Piehl uses color and brushwork “in the spirit of the 1940s Abstract Expressionists [such as Jackson Pollock or Willem deKooning], to convey the dynamics of rodeo action.”
His paintings, which demonstrate a unique blend of Western and contemporary artistic styles, have been shown at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Museum of the American Cowboy, Boise State University Gallery, the Art Museum of Missoula, and the Yellowstone Art Museum, among many others throughout the southwest and Midwest. Plains Art Museum held Piehl’s first major retrospective August 7 to October 26, 2003.
Walter Piehl, Jr., breezy music: sweetheart of the rodeo, 1991, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 36″