"The image of the cowboy is so familiar in American iconology that it has become almost invisible through its normality. And yet the cowboy is also the most sacred and masklike of cultural figures. In both a geographical and cultural sense, a cowboy is an image of endurance itself, a stereotypical symbol of American cinema. He is simultaneously the wanderer and the mythological symbol of social mobility. Even today, the image of the cowboy has not lost its luster. (R. Brooks, "Spiritual America: No Holds Barred," exh. cat. Richard Prince, 1992, p. 95).
In the present work, Sihouette Cowboy the cinematic photograph of a Western landscape and a group cowboys silhouetted against a herd of Longhorn cattle at twilight derives from a Marlboro advertising poster. Made at a time when the company had had to retreat from using images of cigarettes and smoking altogether, it is one of a later series of 'Cowboy' works that Prince made using digital manipulation of the original advertisement. From the myth of the landscape and the sublime to the legends of the Old West and the enduring archetype of the wandering Cowboy, this image of a dusty, crowded group of cowboys in front of their herd invokes almost all the clichs of the Romantic ideal of America. The misty and mysterious blue light casts an aura of mysticism and drama yet, ultimately, like all photographs, or indeed all images, it is constructed. This picture is a manipulated copy of a fake image of cowboys riding through a clearly Romanticized concept of Nature.
Using the very same images as those used in the advertisements, but devoid of the texts, these memorable images of the Cowboy - an instantly recognizable cultural icon - challenge the viewer's attitudes to both the media and to one of America's favorite images of itself. In particular, what clearly interested Prince in the making of this important series of works is the fact that the Cowboy - that hero of the West - had now become a taboo image, because of his association with the tobacco industry. By appropriating the imagery, removing the offending text, and returning the image to the environment of the art gallery, Prince reclaims the archetype while at the same time throwing it open to question and re-evaluation.
In doing so Prince also reveals how the landscape of our modern lives is window-dressed with such artifice and exposes the shallowness much of the imagery and ideology around us. Not only is the language of advertising a language of manipulative lies, Prince shows us, but so are the collective dreams and ideals to which it appeals. In revealing the artifice of our modern culture in such a direct way, appropriating its imagery and deconstructing its language by using its own tools against it so to speak, Prince also opens art and its practice to the same arena of inspection and doubt.