Finding modern day meaning in Western iconography
By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Western art, with its recurring imagery of horses, cowboys and Native American life, can run the risk of redundancy. But sometimes an artist can tackle the same subject matter in such a way that sets his work apart. Such is the case with Denver, Colorado artist Michael Ome Untiedt.
His oil paintings distinguished themselves amid a large collection of Western-themed artwork for reasons difficult to pinpoint beyond exuding a timelessness that tugs gently on the heartstrings of nostalgia; and an almost otherworldly quality of illumination.
Untiedt, who is one of the few non-Montana artists participating the Arts Council of Big Sky’s fifth annual art auction on March 23, believes there is more to it than that.
“The image must reflect something more than itself,” Untiedt said. “Otherwise you’re just making images—you’re a manufacturer. The great art produced by mankind always, without exception, had tremendous meaning. Without having meaning, it’s not real art.”
Untiedt’s oil paintings depict classic Western subject matter—sagging barns, spirited cowboys, aging mountain men and dramatic skies—but are created with a conscious intent to create resonance between his renditions of yesteryear’s American West and the modern day psyche.
“I attempt to portray 21st century predicaments of life and psychology using the iconography of the 19th century cowboy or Western figure,” Untiedt said.
Untiedt writes stories to accompany each of his paintings to better explain the deeper meaning and present day relevance behind the picture. One of his many blue-lit “nocturnes” or nighttime paintings called “On Occasion the Cowhand from La Mancha Would Display a Considerable Lack of Control” shows a white-bearded man caught in a moment of surprise upon a rowdy horse.
The piece is one of many inspired by the great Spanish novel “Don Quixote,” which Untiedt synopsizes as a tale about “the misadventures of … a crazed knight wannabe, reviving and reliving the myths and ‘histories’ of the golden age of knights and chivalry.” In the vein of Cervantes’ epic, Untiedt is also playing with humanity’s tendency to confuse the mythology and folklore of the past with the realities of the present.
“It is as timely today as it was four hundred years ago,” Untiedt writes about “Don Quixote” in the text associated with this particular painting. “Particularly if one were to replace the knight [errant] with today’s myths of the American cowboy. We today, have created a very quixotic world built around a vague understanding of the history and development of the American West.”
For the Arts Council of Big Sky art auction, Untiedt will complete a quick finish of a piece based on a completed study called “Storm Rider II.” The scene, of a cowhand atop a bucking horse with more sky than ground beneath them, was drawn from memories growing up on the sweeping prairielands of southeast Colorado, 10 miles from the Kansas border. Untiedt remembers working with old timers who cursed “green” horses that acted up while they were in the middle of working cattle.
“The scene I most recall … is the rider trying hard to pull the [horse’s] head up, trying to keep ropes together, and grabbing anything that allows them to stay aboard.”
He goes on to draw a correlation between the cowboy’s attempt to wrangle the chaotic energy of the horse with the sometimes daunting task of managing our modern day lives. Untiedt believes viewers pick up on these cues subconsciously which elevates the painting’s poignancy.
Whether or not you know the rambling tales and ruminating philosophies behind each of Untiedt’s paintings, they add unseen, but perceived layers of potency to his work. It’s up to each beholder how deeply to delve into the fine print, or if basking in the wordless glow of his paint is enough.
“I take the role of being an artist very, very seriously, and with a great deal of responsibility,” Untiedt said. “Art is a definer of civilization, of culture. It’s what inspires the great thoughts and helps raise humanity … It’s what sets us apart as a species—using acts of beauty to pass on aspects of our culture. I’m not always successful, but I’ve dedicated my life to trying.”
This is the final part of a three-part series spotlighting artists participating in the Arts Council of Big Sky’s fifth annual art auction on Thursday, March 23 at Moonlight Lodge from 6 to 9 p.m.
To see more of Untiedt’s work visit michaelomeuntiedt.com.
For more information about the auction, including details about opportunities for VIP ticket holders call (406) 995-2742 or visit bigskyarts.org, where you can also view a full catalog of artists featured in the auction.