The late documentarian Les Blank was an artist obsessed with iconoclastic individuals wrought with paradoxes and a sense of timelessness. These very words could easily describe the subject of Blank’s most popular film Burden Of Dreams (1982), German director Werner Herzog. But the subject of The Maestro: King Of The Cowboy Artists (1995) is not a celebrity himself. In fact, the subject of this film is a folk artist at war with contemporary American culture whilst simultaneously being the product of it.
Gerald Gaxiola, the man and his art, are a compendium of the Western mythos as portrayed in the media of the fifties. If one were to list the numerous activities Gaxiola takes a part in during Blank’s film it would become evident that Gaxiola the artist has no connection to the historical realities he depicts, but functions instead as a stereotype propagated by the popular culture after WWII. Yet there is a paradox in Gaxiola’s character. Though his persona as an artist known as “the Maestro” is a compendium of stereotypes the work he produces, more specifically what he does with these works, flies in the face of the American consumer culture of the nineties. As Gaxiola says throughout the film, “art is a religion, not a business”.
Supported by his wife’s part-time job, and a small inheritance, Gaxiola manages to produce a wide variety of artworks in a number of mediums while at the same time achieving a “cult celebrity” status in his native Southern California. Gaxiola sings original songs, designs his own chaps, paints, sculpts, and teaches kids how to handle a lasso all the while pitting himself against the contemporary art world by simply existing as he does, never selling a single piece of his work. It is the inherent surrealism of these circumstances that make Blank’s film, and particularly Gaxiola, entirely watchable. The diverse roles Gaxiola heaps onto his Maestro persona (once celebrated annually on “Maestro Day”) are all as unique as they are uniform in that they all derive from modes of expression that were born out of the mid-twentieth century. Conceptually the combinations referred to above are nothing incredible, but that a single man could execute them so flawlessly and in a relatively isolated environment is almost remarkable.
If one were to go beyond the confines of Blank’s film and investigate Gaxiola today, as I have with my friend Thomas, you’d be a little more than surprised. Just as Gaxiola reinvented himself as the “Maestro” in the early seventies, today he has reinvented himself again, returning to his first persona as a bodybuilder at age 70. Though it may sound as if Gaxiola has simply ended up where he began it isn’t so. Gaxiola’s bodybuilder persona is entirely managed on his own website, full of his own writings and homemade videos of his work out regimen. The Maestro has hung up his spurs for a new kind of celebrity on cyberspace.