Artist Matt McCormick’s use of Western symbols is modern and personal, yet speaks to a collective connection.
Written by Constance Dunn
Two cowboys meet on horseback against a blazing sky. A bronco bucks against a red billboard. A cowboy perches on a fence; a utility pole and street sign nearby. Such signposts of the American West are central figures in Matt McCormick’s work. “There have been times when I’ve tried to get away from it,” says the California artist of Western imagery. “I’ll say ‘I’m not going to do it anymore,’ and then I always end up back doing it. It’s a journey I’m on, and I’m trying not to fight it anymore.”
Perhaps they endure because McCormick’s work aims to capture much more than pretty landscapes. “For me it’s a symbol of a mentality and a way of living that doesn’t necessarily have to be on the range, and I think people connect with that,” says the L.A. artist. “I’m working with the human condition and the psyche of us as a people, and trying to express those feelings through cinematic imagery, whether it be a landscape or a cowboy character.”
Which means familiar and appealing Western symbols are often presented against grittier markers of modern life—grass growing around a discarded tire or Los Angeles street signs—a contrast of images that somehow, seem perfectly natural occupying the same space. McCormick is presenting a collective story; he’s also offering a personal one. “I’m telling stories of my own life either through metaphorical imagery or actual imagery that was from my life,” he points out.
A tattooed 30-something who grew up in Marin County in northern California but today works out of a Downtown Los Angeles studio, McCormick doesn’t fit the profile of a Western artist per se. But the connection between the larger-than-life iconography of the American cowboy and the open range is there, having been seeded early in life by way of popular culture: He listened to Lone Ranger serials, watched classic Westerns—“My dad was constantly doing John Wayne impressions,” recalls McCormick—saw the Marlboro Man on huge billboards and often dressed as a cowboy. “It comes from, as a kid, idolizing the cowboy figure almost as a superhero,” he explains. “Then having that cemented even further because they were presented in this very powerful, visual way.” It was a persistent thread of his childhood, with the cowboy offered a strong, exciting persona that a boy could try on for size. Lots of time spent in the plains-esque beauty of his mother’s hometown of Lodi, located in California’s Central Valley, also played a part.
As he got older, McCormick’s relationship with Western and cowboy imagery found its way into his work. A self-taught artist who is son of painter John McCormick—“I’ve been in art classes since I was born,” says the artist with a chuckle—McCormick is also a well-known tattoo artist (a former career that he no longer practices), and an illustrator whose work has made its way into designer clothing collaborations and albums. “We’re at a moment where Western culture is trending,” he points out. “I would like to think that I have something to do with that. It’s kind of a perfect storm of that, and people liking it for the similar reasons that I like it.”
Photos courtesy of Matt McCormick