The Art World Refashions the Cowboy

“I’d always wanted a pair of cowboy boots, they’re such an American staple,” Antwaun Sargent said in a phone interview.

The Western look may or may not be on the cusp of a comeback, but for Mr. Sargent, that rough-and-ready wrangler style never lost its charm. He once set his sights on a metal-tipped pair that he spotted on a New York fashion runway. “I had no idea what I would wear them with,” he said, “but I knew I had to have them.”

Mr. Sargent, a writer, curator and director at Gagosian galleries, has hung on to those boots and, with them, an enduring fascination with cowboy lore and gear. “For me, it has always been about exploring how we deal with those symbols in our culture and a way of expanding our notion of what they represent.”

And now he has a vehicle. As curator of “Helmut Lang as Seen by Antwaun Sargent,” he will oversee a collaboration between the 37-year-old fashion label and a diverse group of artists. His installation, set to open on Feb. 10 at the Hannah Traore Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was conceived, he said, to flip any stale or conventional notion of the American West on its head.

He was intent on correcting long-held assumptions. “Most people don’t know that many cowboys were Black,” he said. “We want to uncover that history.”

The cotton T-shirt from the Helmut Lang fall 2004 collection that serves as inspiration for the new gallery exhibition. Credit…Helmut Lang

He was no less enthralled with the look. “So much of cowboy culture has become fashion culture,” Mr. Sargent said. “I was interested in the ubiquity of that, and in the ways that pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift use the trope of the cowboy to talk about freedom, power and community.”

The show, which runs from Feb. 10 to 23, takes as its point of departure a white cotton T-shirt from the 2004 Helmut Lang fall collection. That minimalist item, with the word “cowboy” printed on its inside in reverse, serves as the somewhat ambiguous inspiration for the label’s fall show at the gallery on Feb. 10 as well as the work of seven artists — painters, sculptors, photographers and sound artists — each invited by Mr. Sargent to place a distinctive stamp on the Western genre. One of the show’s more haunting images, by Awol Erisku, a Los Angeles photographer, is that of a blinkered white horse standing behind a flower-covered chain-link fence in a suburban front yard.

In the exhibition catalog, artist Quay Quinn Wolfe, whose works are made from greased sheepskin, hairy wool and raw denim, explained: “When thinking about the word ‘cowboy,’ I think about the strain on the body. I think about the sweat, the grime and the oil imprinted on the saddle. I think of patina.”

An image from the installation by Awol Erisku, a Los Angeles photographer. Credit…Awol Erizku
Art by Quay Quinn Wolfe, whose works are made from greased sheepskin, hairy wool and raw denim.Credit…Quay Quinn Wolf
One of several images by Daniel Obasi, a Nigerian photographer. “Those scenes represent memory, nostalgia,” he said.Credit…Daniel Obasi

Daniel Obasi, a Nigerian photographer, will show several images of a young man draped in filmy white cloth, cavorting with a pale mare on the beach. “Those scenes represent memory, nostalgia,” Mr. Obasi wrote.

The exhibition is but the latest in a string of collaborations between the fashion label, owned by Japanese Fast Retailing Co., and artists who in the past have included Martine Syms, Shayne Oliver, Carrie Mae Weems and works from the archive of Peter Hujar, their imagery printed on a selection of T- shirts, blankets, posters and the commercial like.

Ms. Traore, the Canadian-Malinese gallery owner, was inspired, she said, by a 2018 exhibition highlighting Afro-American cowboys by the Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

Elements of the Western ethos have been captured by other designers including Tom Ford, who paraded rhinestone cowboys inspired by “Elvis,” the Oscar-nominated film directed by Baz Luhrmann, on his runway last fall, and by popular labels including Miron Crosby, the West Texas makers of luxury boots embellished with fancy scrollwork and flame designs. Neon Cowboys, the creation of the designer and entrepreneur Asia Hall, is another brand whose light-up boots, Stetsons and fringed button-up shirts are the brash insignia of Doja Cat, Beyoncé and Kesha.

Mr. Sargent’s installation is yet another boost to this newly inclusive vision of the cowboy. And an indication, he said, that our longstanding obsession with the American West has yet to peak.

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