Saturday, July 15, 2006
So the Renwick has a Wood
With the Renwick’s recent exhibition of Grant Wood I have had to tolerate people informing me they have seen the work once they learn I am from Iowa. But I refuse not to look bored if asked if I have seen it too. I won’t. It’s not because I don’t like Wood.
Hard to escape that damned “American Gothic” growing up. The Des Moines Art Museum and Art Institute of Chicago have a joint ownership of the piece, or at least some sort of loan agreement that allows the piece to travel between the two museums for periods of lengthy exhibit. The former Davenport Art Museum, the only fine arts museum in my home town, had a loan agreement with the two museums that captured the piece on it’s 310 mile journey for a three or four month display every five years. For the cost of a couple clams any person in the area could stop in, say hello to the farmer, compliment him on his lovely daughter, and be on his or her way.
Now, when people tell me how ironic the piece is, I tend to disagree. The irony is that this is the celebrated icon of regional American art, and about the best-known piece of Wood’s when so many other pieces he crafted in his short career were fare superior in complexity and wonder and capture the region of the vast American Midwest with better accuracy and articulation.
That quote of Ruscha comes to mind, and I’ll butcher it here. “There are parts in the middle of America that are every bit as surreal as Paris.”
Few from Iowa would ever claim Wood as “ironic.” I grew up in a time of Farm Aid, when various rock and country musicians would gather in some field and raise money for farm relief. During my childhood there were stories about farmers blowing their brains out because their generations-old family farm was facing foreclosure. In college, farmers were slaughtering large swaths of livestock because the bottom dropped out of the hog market and it was cheaper to kill them and let them rot than to try and butcher them and sell them at market. Then there are the droughts that claim hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soy, and sorghum and the emergency aid requested by the state and national government.
Perhaps the irony comes from what else was being produced around the same time. Hopper was creating a lonely Eastern seaboard. Lawrence and Davis were making jagged forms of Manhattan urban life. Pollock was throwing paint. DeKooning was butchering women. Rockwell was illustrating the ideals of the American dream. Wood, and Hopper for that matter, can be looked upon as ironic sandwiched in the middle. Their form of representation was not idillic – though who educated in the arts looks at Rockwell as anything but what he claimed himself to be: an illustrator? Their use of paint was neither abstract nor expressionist. If anything is ironic, it was the choice to paint what he painted, and in the way he painted it. But that can only happen through the lens of art history.