Pop goes the cowboy 

Elegant, compact exhibition of Heller art at Sangre de Cristo

click to enlarge Doc Holiday by Larry Heller
  • Doc Holiday by Larry Heller

The oeuvre of the late artist Larry Heller perfectly embodies his only rule for membership in his imaginary Yawn Valley Yacht Club: "You can't stand steady employment." The decidedly unprolific, nearly lazy output of this talented Colorado Springs dandy dilettante proved his belief that nothing, not even art, should get in the way of a good time.

Small as his output may have been, however, Heller's works were always impressive and delightful testament to his love of life, and most of them are now on display in the tiny Hoag Gallery at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo.

Titled Rococo Cowboy, the show gathers many of the paintings, sculpture, photographs and creative whatnots from Heller's 1934 adobe home in the still-secluded "Yawn Valley" just to the east of North Nevada Avenue, along with several pieces owned by the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. (Heller's home is now owned by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and called The Heller Center for the Humanities.)

Because Heller was independently wealthy, he had little need to concern himself with selling his paintings and sculpture. He produced them, mostly, to decorate the walls and halls of the estate where he lived with his wife Dot.

To this day, few people outside of Colorado Springs have even heard of Heller. Even fewer have seen the works that campily illustrated all the things he held dear to his heart: horses, race cars, movies, women, art, literature and deeply held romantic fantasies about the West. (For more about Heller see "Celebrating the Hellers" in the Oct. 12, 2002, issue of The Independent at

www.csindy.com ).

An illustrator by training, Heller's almost comically romantic paintings diverge sharply from the stark social realist landscapes being painted by Colorado Springs contemporaries like Birger Sandzen, Archie Musick, Boardman Robinson and Francis Drexel Smith.

"The Horse Opera," one of Heller's most masterful Western paintings, which depicts a handsome bandit and his gang robbing a stagecoach, could have come directly from the pages of Reader's Digest. Everything from the swank young lady emerging brazenly from the coach to the tousle of the horse's blond mane scream affected glamour and male sexual fantasy.

click to enlarge The Captive by Larry Heller
  • The Captive by Larry Heller

In "The Captive," a Mexican in a sombrero unties the hands of a voluptuous flapper in a sheer, sparkling evening gown while a strapping young cowboy leans back amidst the yucca with his gun across his thigh. No need to deconstruct this scene!

Such unabashed machismo is hard to come by in art galleries these days. Almost every painting features a pert-breasted, scantily clad (or topless) young lady in some form or another. Still, the Norman-Rockwellian naivete of these pop images hardly warrants a call to the PC police.

Then there are his wickedly ridiculous bronze sculptures. In "Sacred du Printemps (Goat Girl)" a naked lady walks two goats. Another bronze of a topless black woman with a large, rounded afro in the midst of a boogie titled "Dancer" is a mind-boggling anachronism that manages to fit in wonderfully with the alien in Heller's painting "Tales of Hoffman."

Circus carnies, gypsies, squaws, ladies lounging in a sultan's turret -- these are the things of Heller's fantasy world. And while he will likely be all-but-forgotten in the annals of 20th-century art, now's a good time to catch a glimpse of these gems of local art history before they return to hiding and, perhaps, oblivion.

-- Noel Black


Rococo Cowboy: The Paintings and Sculpture of Larry Heller

Sangre de Cristo Arts Center 210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo

Through Oct. 30

719/295-7200 or www.sdc-arts.org


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