Ask Colorado artist David Kammerzell if he considers his paintings of the Old West “realistic,” and you’re likely to get a complicated answer—maybe even a contradictory one. The painter’s oil canvases, many of which engage in what might be called aesthetic historical revisionism, depict cowboys and Western landscapes hyperrealized through juiced-up colors, dramatized scenery and other touches of idealism layered over the plain record of history. It’s a technique, he says, meant to “blur the lines between memory and longing.” We caught up with him at his Cherry Creek studio to ask about his process, his influences and the motives that drive his unique style of painting.
When did you first become interested in art? I was born in Houston, and my family spent time in Tucson when I was young. I had a friend in Tucson whose mom was a painter. She would do these wonderful landscapes, lots of cactus and dramatic rock. I remember being fascinated with those. That’s when I started experimenting with drawing. I fell in love with it.
Your paintings are highly detailed, but it would be wrong to call them “realistic.” They’re highly stylized, too. That’s right. They don’t reside completely in the natural world. If I paint a guy on a horse in the middle of a landscape, it’s not just a guy on a horse. There’s a bit of a contemporary element to it as well. I’ve heard the term “illustrative” a lot, in reference to my work. I feel that incorporating some non-naturalistic elements helps balance everything out, and also puts one foot in the contemporary world. I try to walk a tightrope between contemporary and more traditional work.
You say you’ve heard the term “illustrative” to describe your work. Do some of your influences include illustrators? Oh, yes. Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker, especially. Leyendecker was a mentor to Norman Rockwell. He did a lot of Saturday Evening Post covers and he was really just a tremendous artist; he had a skill that I don’t think I’ve seen in anybody since. With illustration and commercial art, there’s something about it that’s almost better than real. It’s more glamorous, more beautiful. At the end of the day, yes, it’s trying to sell something. But it has this je ne sais quoi about it, some ambiance that has always appealed to me.
Your work seems to refer to a nostalgic, almost mythic idea of cowboys and the Old West. My paintings are based on vintage photos, so all the cowboys are real people. But yes, they’re certainly glamorized. I up the ante on the colors and environments and so on. The scenes do become a little more mythic that way. I seek to put the viewer in a narrative where the lines between memory and longing are blurred. Nostalgia is a big thing, you know. A very bittersweet flavor. When you think about old things, sometimes you desperately want to revisit them. But you can’t. They’re gone. That longing really interests me, and that flavor is baked into a lot of my pieces.
Find Kammerzell’s work at Abend Gallery, 1412 Wazee St., and Lovetts Gallery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.