The women’s faces are young and beautiful, but unsmiling. Their costumes engulf them in pelts, metal, fringe and sometimes spangles, but they aren’t primping. Instead, they stand tall, holding firearms, pointy sticks, axes. June Glasson’s portrait subjects are channeling their inner mountain man, and this exhibit proposes a seriously funny, brave new world of women warriors.
Glasson’s anonymous heroines aren’t staring down a grizzly bear, hostile warrior or starvation, but confronting the viewer. They look at or even through you, like legendary explorer William Sublette himself might have. Yet there’s pink fringe on their beaver traps and they are wearing full-sized spurs for earrings.
In this expansive new series, sparked by images of mountain men from the 1820s until today, Glasson puts the “camp” in the trapper’s camp, applying her long-term practice of disruption, reinterpretation and poking fun at hallowed cultural symbols few of us question.
Wyoming is not without everyday drag precedents. Many a ranchwoman or cowgirl has adopted drag by preference, social pressure or occupational necessity. RuPaul’s husband claims Converse County as one of his homes. It’s time, suggests Glasson, for the macho Equality State to get comfortable with alternatives.
During a 2016 artist’s residency in Pinedale, Glasson visited the Museum of the Mountain Man and received a crash course in the history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. She was struck by the archetype of the indomitable beaver trapper, who risked countless ways to die in pursuit of Wyoming’s first boom/bust industry. She also learned about the rigorous standards set by the American Mountain Men. Membership in this group is the signature of authenticity for any 21st-century aspiring mountain man.
In Laramie, her home since 2010, Glasson began inviting friends to take part in a series of directed photo shoots, her preferred method of obtaining reference images for portrait paintings. With hunting and history virtually in the air we breathe, her Wyomingite subjects would often bring their own props to augment Glasson’s studio collection, and engage in parody and drag to “play with the idea of the Mountain Man and white Western masculinity,” the artist said. The idea of authenticity was also up for grabs.
Besides the upending of masculine/feminine roles, each oil-on-panel portrait teases emotions of fulfillment and yearning. Impeccable detail is offset by thin washes or flat blocks of color, with relatively soft brushwork, so that we receive only so much eye candy before being forced to put our own imaginations to work.
Glasson says alternating between the tightly controlled and the less finished keeps the paintings “alive.”
The dynamic effect of finished/not finished is most evident in paintings where the grain of the unprimed wood panel shows through. The women, rendered in more substantial layers of pigment, appear to emerge from — or be enveloped by — the tree substrate.
Are these women calling forth, and then rewriting, the Greek myth of Daphne, whose father had to change her into a tree to protect her from the god Apollo? Here, mountain drag kings return the power to Daphne’s hands.
In other portraits, the paint layer is more uniform, and the figure is sometimes accentuated with gold leaf. Silhouetted against flat, intense color, the women appear symbolic, and call to mind star athletes on magazine covers, icons of Russian saints or with their furs and casually cradled rifles, perhaps avatars of Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
There’s a barefoot woman with the head of a buffalo, suggesting drag might be cross-species. Another has whiskers painted on her elfin face so expertly that she appears utterly androgynous (the subject is a drag-king performer in real life). Throughout the series, armaments masquerade as toys and toys pretend to be weapons. Everything, it seems, is undergoing transformation and turning itself inside out.
White Western masculinity is certainly “under the gun,” so to speak, in this exhibit and in the world at large. The traditional roles played by women in the mountain men’s actual lives, in their narratives, and in our Far West myths reflect long-held stereotypes about both Native and white women: Camp drudge, trophy consort, uptight schoolmarm, frontier floozy. From the 19th century through today’s historical re-enactments and Western art galleries, those narrowly framed dramas and their commercial appeal remain largely unchanged and unchallenged. This exhibit invites viewers to have fun by softening our certainties, instead of letting them dominate us.
Glasson loved her time in Wyoming and contributed much to its arts community. She helped launch Wyoming Art Party, participated in Laramie’s downtown mural project, and reached out to other artists across the state. She completed work for this exhibit after moving with her growing family to the Hudson Valley of New York in 2018.
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Her solo exhibit, “Mountain Drag II,” at Visions West Contemporary in Denver, in the steadily rising RINO arts district, was a coup for any artist, but is especially notable for an artist with Laramie in her heart. The exhibit ran through Oct. 24.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.
I was fascinated by this, Sue, and forwarded it to a friend who works in photography. Much to be inspired by here. Much to ponder. Thanks so much.
Great review, Sue. The tightness of the portrayed’s expressions and the humor in the attire do invite an unthreatening examination of historical sexism, which seems to eliminate any concerns about political correctness, too.