South Austin Museum of Popular Culture, on So Lamar.
Picture yourself in the cab of a pickup, windows rolled down on account of the air conditioner being stone broke; glove box overflowing with maps, receipts, and 8-track tapes of Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzell; floor littered with Whataburger bags, empty packs of Camels, and crumpled cans of Pearl; a gun rack for a headrest; and a bluetick coonhound warmin’ the seat between you and the driver, who’s full of enough stories to last your whole trip from Beaumont to El Paso, even if that ride is a freewheeling ramble as far north as Dalhart and as far south as McAllen, with stops at every honky-tonk and roadside curiosity along the way.
That’s the feeling you get moseying through Bob Wade’s self-described “retrospectacle” at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture. The work of the artist dubbed “Daddy-O” is so steeped in Texas culture and iconography – the old and the new, rural and urban, classy and cheesy – that “40 Years of Blood, Sweat and Beers” seems to encompass everything in the whole damn state. It isn’t that the exhibit is so vast; Dallas has walk-in closets bigger than the entire exhibition space in this old South Lamar storefront, and even with most walls crammed floor-to-ceiling with material, the show is a pretty quick walk-through. No, it’s that everything included here just exudes Texas-osity, the way one oozes beery sweat after a three-night bender in Terlingua. The tinted antique photo of fresh-faced cowgirls waving their Stetsons from a row of Harleys, the little taxidermied jackrabbit head with antelope horns coming out of his skull, the full-size fiberglass steer with a keg in place of his head and a bug zapper coming out of his ass, the Airstream trailer with the giant iguana head and a saddle on top, the 8-foot foam tornado festooned with trash, even the alligator made entirely of Altoids tins, all of it seems birthed from Texas dirt, pulled right out of the soil between the Red River and the Rio Grande. Bob Wade gets what the Lone Star State is all about – on a cellular level, it would appear – and has spent four decades not just making work about it but imbuing that work with a palpable sense of Texas’ expansive, expressive, excessive, eccentric, irreverent, and rambunctious ways.
To judge from the year-by-year portrait of the artist as a young man running along the upper wall of one room, Wade’s absorption of Lone Star culture began at an early age. In the images of him from what look to be his fifth or sixth year, he appears in four different cowboy outfits, studiously decked out in little hats, bandannas, holsters, and toy guns. Though he sheds the Western wear as he progresses toward adolescence (the portraits extend to age 30), his inner buckaroo must have continued riding the range of his native state, for once he returns from a brief self-imposed exile in California (something in him needed a master’s in painting from Berkeley), Texas starts showing up in Wade’s art in a big way. Literally. In the mid-Seventies, he creates a series of large installations that bring together such archetypal objets de Tejana as Stetsons, bluebonnets, barbed wire, oil derricks, cattle skulls, and cacti in sometimes mythic, sometimes satiric arrangements, typically around a large manifestation of that five-pointed Lone Star. These sculptural works are downright encyclopedic in their representation of things Texan, and it’s a bit frustrating that here we’re given only a few small photographs by which to admire them. They’re so expansive, and they describe something so expansive, that you want to see them full-blown in three dimensions and walk through them.
But big as they were (most often 40-by-40 feet), these installations couldn’t contain all of Texas as “Daddy-O” understood it. So he sought out new forms with which to Tex-press himself: the hand-tinted photographs, with subjects ranging from good ol’ white-boy hunters in gimme caps to Mexican revolutionaries in sombreros to those iconic cowgirls; the taxidermied animals, reimagined in fanciful ways (the aforementioned jackalope and Bug Light) or compromising positions (an armadillo and iguana making, as it were, the beast with two backs); the vehicles, from an anthropomorphized trailer with Kinky Friedman’s signature Stetson, ‘stache, and cigar to the bullet-riddled van dubbed the Bonnie and Clyde Mobile; and, most attention-getting of all, the monumental sculptures – the 12-foot-tall iguana that for years stood guard over Lone Star Cafe in New York City, the 8-foot-tall frogs that sparked an art controversy in Dallas, the 20-foot-tall cartoon dog made out of a 1966 Plymouth and other assorted car parts, 40-foot-tall cowboy boots, a 70-foot saxophone. The various kinds of work allowed Wade a way to more fully tease out his notions about the state’s history and myths; its geography and customs; its tastes in fashion, food, and music; and its attitudes toward that Holy Trinity of Guns, Cars, and Beer.
The biggest works are among his best-known, and considered in the context of all his work, it’s easy to see why: They capture the spirit of Texas’ sense of scale, that “Everything’s bigger in Texas” mantra typically uttered in these parts with a shit-eating grin. We love the bigness of the place itself, and we love the idea of people accomplishing big things in it – like Pecos Bill, riding a twister and lassoing the Rio Grande to water his ranch and shooting all the stars from the sky except one, Bob “Daddy-O” Wade has been giving us those kinds of grand, mythic feats for 40 years, one long, crazy Texas tall tale in fiberglass and steel, served up with a wink and a hearty “yee-haw.”