Lou Marak's cowboy makes us uncomfortable.

Saddle Sore 

Lou Marak's cowboy makes us uncomfortable.

Hanging in the Hallar Gallery are three indelible depictions of a hefty, mustachioed and bespectacled cowboy named Nathan. He's a good ol' boy who cherishes his right to carry guns and drink, and in Lou Marak's paintings, he preens in self-satisfaction. Nathan is as repulsive as he is unforgettable.

Elsewhere in the gallery are Marak's nudes, which seem ripped from his sketchbook; don't bother with them. Instead, head straight for the series in which Nathan stars. "Then We Won the West: Trashed" shows the slovenly cowboy (who is based on a real person from Marak's childhood) in a field with his indispensable totems — a bottle of Budweiser in his left hand and a gun within reach of his right — perched on a horse that's obviously ashamed. Underneath a wide-open sky, in every frame, a stretch of highway pierces the horizon — and leads the eye straight to Nathan.

Marak lovingly renders ugly aspects of American culture. Nathan is the epitome of smug. In "Then We Won the West II," he raises a goblet of wine as if to say, "You're darn right we won." He is more caricature than reality, an obvious exaggeration of an American stereotype, and his comical poses are reminders that the romance of the West has a dark side. The overall feeling here is one of ignorant, wanton domination. Nathan represents the winners of Western expansionism; Marak symbolizes the losers — primarily American Indians — with the feather attached to the horse's tail. The beauty lies in Marak's details — Nathan's beer belly, wide thighs and chubby, sunburned arms.

Marak's work shares the gallery with paintings by his wife, Philomene Bennett. Her work is alive with color, depicting Czech pottery surrounded by piles of fruit and vegetables. The 90-inch-by-90-inch "Morning Paradise Series" stands out for the strong gold color that reflects diffused sunlight and runs down through the water and over rocks to touch fish.

However appealing Bennett's work, though, it's hard not to return to the man Marak has called a "weekend cowboy." His image of Nathan is as complex as American history, as Americans themselves.

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