Cameron Hurst, 2018
In accordance with the Australian Professional Rodeo Association’s By-Laws & Competition Rules, ‘failure to wear a Western hat, long sleeved, cut and sewn shirt (no knit pullovers allowed) and Western boots in the arena at all times’ will incur financial penalty and verbal discipline. This stipulation is not, of course, because elaborately embroidered boots and hats with upturned brims make the practice of tying knots and riding bulls for competition any safer or more efficient. It’s because you don’t become a Cowboy by wearing an old knit pullover and some Blunnies. The garments of the rodeo are a key conduit through which looking like a Cowboy transmits to being a Cowboy. Laurence Watts’ Looking West captures rodeo culture as a performance of masculine aesthetics, a complex intersection between real men and the exaggerated figure they embody. Watts demonstrates both the complex process of assuming the Cowboy identity whilst revelling in the enduringly appealing archetype. If a film titled Once Upon a Time in the Bush (dir. Judith Butler) existed, these could be the stills.
Watts’ project in Looking West is to capture an aestheticised version of masculinity that is rarely acknowledged in gendered culture wars. The dominant conversation about gender in our culture currently is the #MeToo dismantling of ‘toxic’ masculinities and reductive femininities, conversations that strike back at almost omnipresent gendered violence and trauma. This is a critical, long-overdue and unfinished conversation. Yet perhaps one excess is that gender is seen primarily as a producer of corrosive results. Andrea Long Chu writes only half-jokingly that for SCUM queen Valerie Solanas: ‘male and female are essentially styles… rival aesthetic schools distinguishable by their respective adjectival palettes.’ Masculinity as a sensibility and source of pleasure - that’s how I see Looking West.
Creative communities have always understood the transgressive allure of gender performativity. Drag performers and artists perform heightened versions of femininity through visual language speaks to artifice: makeup that emphasizes sensuous lips and big eyes, curvaceous bodies, physicality that invites erotic appraisal. We have a cultural fluency in high femininity that underpins our visual pleasure watching Paris is Burning, or viewing a Cindy Sherman image, or experiencing a Victoria Sin performance, or even enduring a poor Snatch Game. Can traditional masculine identities be exaggerated in similar modes?
Watts’ Cowboys put on and take off their hats as a means of assuming their identities. I highly doubt these blokes would enjoy being categorized as drag artists, but the Artist is Dead and functionally, the mechanisms and effects of getting ready for the Rodeo and for Drag Race are the same. Through heavily stylized clothing and physicality, an exaggerated Boy is achieved. The strength of Looking West is the dual commitment Watts makes to showing his subjects in the liminal stages of rodeo life, as ‘normal’ rural Aussie men, and in the almost mythological status they affect in full rodeo gear.
In one image from the series, a Cowboy ensemble is laid carefully out on a dresser beside a perfectly made bed. Two-tone boots aligned on the carpet with loving precision. There is an anthropomorphic quality to the image, the stark flat lighting placing the rugged Cowboy accoutrements as a disembodied living entity in a completely different space-time continuum to the cheery paisley bed cover and beige carpeting. Later, the half-dressed Cowboys in their living room appear as particularly charming as their sombre poses take on a certain comic absurdity amidst DVD shelves stacked with blockbusters and a bubblegum pink exercise ball. These banal domestic items preclude the existence of wild, solitary life on the colonial prairies here. The men hover in a visual limbo, Bed, Bath & Beyond linens and the Fast & the Furious box set competing with the ghost of Clint Eastwood and an Ennio Morricone theme song echoing in the distance.
But any condescending conclusions about fake Cowboys in Australia are made redundant by the most compelling images in Looking West: the men shot outside in full Cowboy attire. One holds an enormous deer head whilst dripping in fringing, another is poised with perfect posture on horseback in Baroque leather chaps. These Cowboys show none of the gawkiness of their predecessors in the series. The parched ground and washed out blue of the harsh Australian landscape are bestowed with legendary figures. They are not trying to be Cowboys: they are Cowboys. Watts’ prior explorations of the constructed nature of the Cowboy aesthetic identity do not render the final result any less impressive. Through some combination of garments and panache, the blokes have metamorphosed from Aussie farm boys into embodiments of lone arbitrators of law and order in a wild dry dust, men of few words but with unassailable, stoic honour. It’s uncanny to see this profoundly American figure materialize in the recognizably Australian landscape, but it works. The photos exude a cinematic logic.
One is not born, but rather becomes, a Cowboy. Looking Westexamines both the process of becoming and the post-transformation affect with a critical appreciation for masculine aesthetic labour. A Western hat, long sleeved, cut and sown shirt (no knit pullovers allowed) and Western boots have the power to turn a bloke into a bonafide Cowboy. Who wants to green-light Once Upon a Time in the Bush?
Cameron Hurst is a Writer and Researcher based in Narrm/Melbourne