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"Parlee" by Duke Beardsley. Courtesy of the artist

Duke Beardsley Confronts What It Means to Belong

The artist's latest show prompts Denverites to question what it means to be from a place, and whether or not such a question still matters.

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In the corner of the refurbished garage that is sixth-generation Coloradan Duke Beardsley’s art studio is a quote painted in large, red capitalized letters. At first glance, the three sentences uproot the very nature of Beardsley’s work, which has centered on classic images of the West (cowgirls on horseback, ranchers herding cattle, boundless landscapes) since the beginning of his career. “Too many approaches to the American West hinge on the nostalgic,” the wall reads. “And the problem with nostalgia is that it’s rife with sentimentalism. And the problem with sentimentalism is that it’s boring as shit.”

The quote, a written version of a proclamation made by one of Beardsley’s brothers, appears ironic, given that during Beardsley’s upbringing, he and his family spent half of their time on a cattle ranch in eastern Colorado, a lifestyle that certainly hinges on the nostalgic. And though most of Beardsley’s paintings appear to capture moments from at least a century ago (they’re actually all based on contemporary photos he took himself while out with ranchers), the artist is situated solidly in the present, while also thinking about the future. His latest exhibit, called Invasive Splendor: A Quasi-Indigenous Dispatch from the Lost Trail to Nowhere may sound like a nursery rhyme using adult words, but the impetus behind it is really quite profound, once you take the time to dissect it.

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Cinta Azul by Duke Beardsley
“Cinta Azul” by Duke Beardsley. Courtesy of the artist

“Invasive splendor” refers to those images of the West that we know well: mostly horses and horseback riding, both of which originated on the other side of the world. “We may associate [cowboys and cowgirls] with the West,” Beardsley expounds, “but they don’t belong here any more than Russian sage or Canadian thistle.” Still, Beardsley doesn’t claim to know who and what belongs “here,” and he’s comfortable keeping that question unanswered.

Boone by Duke Beardsley
“Boone” by Duke Beardsley. Courtesy of the artist

The same is true for “quasi-indigenous.” Beardsley’s ancestors first came to the region in the latter half of the 19th century, hardly the first group of people to occupy the area, but were early settlers nonetheless. If anyone may stake claim to the title of “indigenous,” however, it is the often disregarded and marginalized native tribes of North America. But even they came from elsewhere (as far as we know), Beardsley maintains.

“What it means to be from a place” is a question Beardsley has had on his mind for a long time. Since he left for college in 1988, the state has grown immensely (in the last nine years the population has increased by 20 percent.) It was partially the influx of people to the Rocky Mountain Region that got Beardsley thinking about who belongs to a place and what, exactly, “belonging” even means. “Just because my great-great-grandparents got here with the first railroad doesn’t mean there’s any more merit to that than somebody who showed up yesterday.”

Tin Man Redux by Duke Beardsley
“Tin Man Redux” by Duke Beardsley. Courtesy of the artist

Altogether, The Lost Trail to Nowhere encompasses this idea of belonging, but expands on it even further by considering not only where we are and where we came from, but where we’re all going. The “lost trail” that he constantly considers is both physical and metaphorical. On many an excursion in rural Colorado, Beardsley has found himself on trails that lead absolutely nowhere—mountain bike tracks, ATV trails, horse paths, and wagon roads, all ending in oblivion. “I love that,” Beardsley says. He also appreciates the metaphorical meaning of the lost trail, which boils down to the age-old adage, now trite but nevertheless true, that life is about the journey, not the destination.

If perhaps, we were to accept that everyone is just traveling on their own road, the questions of place and belonging wouldn’t be so profound after all.

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If you go: Invasive Splendor: A Quasi-Indigenous Dispatch From The Lost Trail to Nowhere opens Friday, November 8, at Space ANNEX, 95 South Cherokee St. An opening reception will be held that evening from 6–8 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

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