Mad Cows and Cowboys

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
2004
Carpet, rope carpet, tin, wood pulp, oil, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood
84.5 x 85 x 4 inches

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Mad Cows and Cowboys contrasts the wan glow of a campfire at the bottom of the painting with the weird and irrational light of the large moon that fills the center of the canvas.

Mad Cows and Cowboys contrasts the wan glow of a campfire at the bottom of the painting with the weird and irrational light of the large moon that fills the center of the canvas. Dial conflates two deep American myths—the nursery rhyme in which the cow jumps over the moon and the western cowboy campfire with its white male camaraderie on a cold prairie night. As we work to interpret this magical work, ideas of posses, cowpokes, herds, and trail drives crowd our minds, and, within the context of the other works on contemporary history, we are perhaps not wrong to think that, for Dial, the cowboys are men in Washington, the fire is both warmth and madness, and the cows are nature controlled but also out of control. Indeed, the redness in the eye of one dancing cow renders it a “mad cow,” and we almost want to pray for the control of this terrifying disease that, as Dial well knows, stems from a form of cannibalism in which animals are fed the flesh and especially the brains of their own kind. Nature’s rage within the vast wildfires of Out of Control (fires started by humans and abetted by ill-advised residential sprawl), which hinted at the destabilization of human control, jellifies into the red eyeballs of Mad Cows and Cowboys, where similar pronouncements are whispered about the madness of the cowboys (who, we presume, are filling themselves with tainted T-bones taken from the cattle they have poisoned). Dial harnesses our powers of verbal-visual play in ways that take us back to our childhood, when we learn of fears and monsters in fairy tales before those tales become real and we learn that most monsters are created by men. —Richard R. Brettell