What better place to challenge doggedly heteronormative and white narratives of the American West than in Denver (CO), a city that instantaneously conjures romantic images of the free-wheeling, lawless, and emphatically heroic, white, and male Wild West?
Denver-based, queer artist Kenzie Sitterud’s exhibition From, Dawn at Denver’s Leon Art Gallery was that proverbial burr under the saddle of conventional Wild West mythology.
Taking the iconic cowboy boot as an object of multivalent, symbolic import, Kenzie contests tenacious, prevailing myths of the cowboy. One of the most enduring archetypal characters of the American origin story, the cowboy persists in cultural memory as a model for the construction of an explicitly gendered (male) and racialized (white) identity. However, notes Kenzie, neither the cowboy nor his iconic footwear is –or ever was – exclusively white and male.
Kenzie’s sculpture, Knocking Boots, gets immediately to the point via its reference to an amusing sexual colloquialism. “Knocking boots” means you’re having vigorous sex with your boots on. In this work, a shiny silver boot goes toe-to-toe with a teal one. Like several other works in From, Dawn, the boots are mounted on plaques like trophy heads displayed on the wall of a hunting lodge.
Fetishes of sexual conquest, among other things, the boots allude to “a surprising and hidden history of queerness.”
Fetishes of sexual conquest, among other things, the boots allude to “a surprising and hidden history of queerness,” explains Kenzie. American West historian Henry Nash Smith wrote about the symbolism of “open” or “virgin land” that aroused the imagination of Americans, especially East Coast city dwellers. The draw of unspoilt territory, the promise of complete freedom, was irresistible. The propaganda of colonialist westward expansion, parsed in subversively sexual terms, reached the depths of prospective settlers, adventurers, conquerors, and myriad other characters.
The notion of “virgin land” held distinctly gendered connotations. The tropes are familiar and far older than the USA, of course. In short, nature is feminine and passive; she eagerly awaits the active, masculine settler who will possess her. Kenzie’s works in From, Dawn challenge and deconstruct the old, gendered tropes by examining what they call the “surprising and hidden history of queerness” of the Western Cowboy boot and the heteronormative narrative of westward expansion itself.
The cowboy boot central to From, Dawn has enormous personal significance to Kenzie. The boots from which they cast the various sculptures in the exhibition was a pair that belonged to their grandfather – his last pair of church boots, no less. On Sundays, the artist’s grandfather, a farmer in Emery County Utah, set aside his work boots for a more elaborate, black leather pair.
Kenzie reflected on the influence of their grandfather on their own identity: “His [identity] was formed by watching American cowboy movies and internalizing the ideals of hard work, individual freedom, and masculinity, which he held onto until his very last breath.” Their grandfather’s deeply influential “hyper masculinity” contrasted sharply with the traditional, feminine roles of the women in the family: there was the world of women (the domestic sphere) and the realm of men (the farm).
Equally influential was the land itself. Kenzie grew up in a small, almost wholly Mormon town in the Capitol Reef Desert in Utah on “the ancestral lands of the Timpanogos and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) Nations.” In adulthood, they’ve become increasingly aware of their family’s extremely problematic place in the land of their birth and upbringing: in essence, they’re settlers on stolen land. There’s nothing ambiguous about that and, it seems, Kenzie has reproduced their feelings – a complicated mix of nostalgia and aversion – in the crisp, colorful, geometric paintings of the group of works titled The Sunrise Collection.
According to Kenzie, the pictures are, in part, tributes to Josef Albers clean, mechanistic artworks. Untitled and numbered, they deconstruct the landscape of the Utah desert; simple forms and lines in red, yellow, pink, turquoise, and black evoke desert vistas. They feel like serious, formal counterpoints to the sculptures featuring the monochrome, ceramic boots.
And yet, there is far more to those boots! In the final years of his life, they recorded the gait of Kenzie’s grandfather as his steps grew slower, shorter, and then finally halted altogether. In their wear and tear, their every detail, they came to stand for the man himself before they were mementoes. For his granddaughter, the boots stood for so much more: filling his boots, walking in them, and finally casting them as a meditation on family, local, regional, and national histories that remain conditional, contested.
“My androgynous appearance,” Kenzie elaborates, “accentuated by the masculine attire of cowboy western wear, serves to bridge the gap between my queerness and my ancestral heritage. This connection is deeply rooted in my upbringing in the desert landscapes of Utah.”
Kenzie’s first experience casting objects was, quite fittingly, with their grandfather’s boots. Growing up questioning one’s identity in such an adamantly binary physical and psychic space seems to have been both a hardship as extreme as the local weather and terrain, and a blessing necessarily mixed. With the work Cowboy Hustle, Kenzie turned to a niche of gay culture – the Country and Western gay dance club – to explore heavily gendered roles in cowboy and American West culture.
The story of the straight-as-an-arrow American West was, in reality, more myth than fact.
The thing is, Kenzie points out, the story of the straight-as-an-arrow American West was, in reality, more myth than fact. As C.S. Harper, author of “Why the cowboy has always been queer as folk in pop culture” argues, “Emerging research in sexual orientations in the old West increasingly indicates that homosexuality was far more common than Hollywood movies and historical literature have indicated.” The same vast frontier that lacked “civilization” also offered liberty to non-heterosexual people seeking the sort of romantic and sexual freedom cities and towns (with their Victorian moral codes) strictly forbade.
Cowboy Hustle alludes to a kind of liberatory escape/escapade or perhaps a swindle – or both. At the least, it points to the real story behind the boot. “A product of cultural appropriation, drawing inspiration from various sources, including Mexican vaqueros in the South and American Western lore, as well as comics and illustrations” writes Kenzie, the cowboy boot was gradually transformed from largely utilitarian foot protection to fashion statement. “The result,” they continue, “was a fancy boot with high heels, a manifestation of flamboyance and queerness, challenging traditional notions of masculinity.”
The checkerboard dance floor, echoing the gay discotheques of the 1970s, also evokes potentially contradictory images of kitchen tablecloths and thus, according to the conventional binary, femininity and domesticity.
Inspired in part by Andy Warhol’s Dance Diagram series, Kenzie arranged the pink boots according to the steps of the line dance called “The Cowboy Hustle.” In juxtaposition with the other works incorporating cowboy boots, Cowboy Hustle feels like an exuberant release and a culmination.
Other works in the exhibition include Western Wear Show Prints (with graphic pieces of deconstructed cowboy boots) resulting from Kenzie’s hours-long study of footwear in the Boot Barn. And in Cowboy Shaving Video Performance (an exploration of “the themes of masculinity”), Kenzie prods viewers into radically reconsidering gender and racial norms, especially but not exclusively in relation to anachronistic conceptions of some of the most familiar, romanticized, and entrenched archetypes of the American West.
© Debra Thimmesch (9/28/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Visit Kenzie Sitterud’s website here.
Learn more about the exhibition at the Leon Gallery here.
Read more about the pop culture history of the Queer Cowboy here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: From, Dawn exhibit’s Cowboy Hustle sculpture at the Leon Art Gallery. Photo credit Amanda Tipton. Courtesy of Kenzie Sitterud.
Middle photo: From, Dawn exhibit’s The Sunrise Collection paintings at the Leon Art Gallery. Photo credit Amanda Tipton. Courtesy of Kenzie Sitterud.
Bottom photo: From, Dawn exhibit at the Leon Art Gallery. Photo credit Amanda Tipton. Courtesy of Kenzie Sitterud.
Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in Art History and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink and reframe the study and pedagogy of Art History. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal. Her BA in art history is from Wichita State University; master’s and doctoral work in art history: the University of Kansas.