"The cows provide an excuse for making a painting," said Montana artist Ted Waddell, whose work is being shown at the Corcoran Biennial in its Second Western States Exhibition. Waddell, who also manages a 4,500-acre cattle ranch in Molt ("Hey, in Molt, black tie means you wear your new overalls"), attended a preview reception at the Corcoran Gallery last night and had this to say about living and working in the West:

"I have to live there. There are only 600,000 of us," he said, referring to the state's sparse population. "Our nearest neighbor's four miles away . . . The art's all part of the process of living on the ranch. You farm that ground and it's one thing; then you look at it and it's something else visually. It's the landscapes, the intersection of sky and horizon."

Waddell is one of 26 out of 30 exhibiting artists who traveled here for the show. Many of them said they hope to dispel notions of 10-gallon hats, pointed boots and spurs. "I'm glad to see a western show that's not about . . . the John Travolta image. That's boring," said artist John Alexander, a Houston native who now lives in New York and came to see old friends' work.

"There's a social and cultural snobbery on the East Coast," said Chuck Dugan of Houston, whose work is about "self-preservation" in Texas' developing cities. "This isn't cowboy stuff."

Nevertheless, David Nelson, chairman of the Western States Arts Foundation--which helped organize the show, discovered much of the talent and subsidized artists' traveling expenses--suggested that western geography had indeed influenced the work. "The scale of the landscape" resulted in the show's many sprawling canvases, he said, and the "romanticism" and "remoteness" of the West has attracted many artists.

The show opens to Corcoran members tonight and to the public tomorrow. Last night's small but lavish reception was paid for by one of the cosponsors, Philip Morris Inc., which also provided sample cartons of cigarettes at the door.

"People often categorize western art as nostalgia," Waddell said. "That's very inaccurate, and this show provides good evidence. I would say we're all trying to claim the West in a different way."