Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Midwestern Values

As any average American for a short list of great American paintings and you’ll more often than not find on that list American Gothic (above, from 1930) by Grant Wood. Born February 13, 1892, Wood’s double portrait of his sister and dentist dressed as a spinster daughter and her farmer father remains one of those indelible images in American art that has crossed over into popular culture so powerfully that even people who know nothing about art (or even the name of the painting) know this image. I wouldn’t put American Gothic on my personal top five of American art, but Wood’s unique brand of Regionalism certainly makes him an interesting figure. Beneath the surface comedy of the hangdog visages of the farmer and his daughter, you sense some of the uncertainty and desperation of the people of the 1930s struggling during the hard times of the Great Depression.

American Gothic and its photorealism present an inaccurate picture of Wood as an artist. Like his fellow Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton, Wood depicted the world of the American Midwest through the prism of his own artistic vision. In Young Corn (above, from 1931), the rows of young corn form a hatched pattern in the foreground—more abstraction than produce. The bulbous trees that line up into the distance seem more like green clouds fastened to the earth by their trunks. Even the hillside at the top of the painting seems unreal in its roundness, as if it were a living thing inhaling and exhaling. Where American Gothic forces you to look at the faces of Midwestern living, Young Corn excludes all traces of humanity completely, making the landscape itself, or rather Wood’s revision of that landscape, the star.

In Fall Ploughing (above, from 1931), Wood creates a landscape similar to Young Corn, but accentuates the missing human element through an abandoned plough set front and center. Again, as in Young Corn, Wood reduces the landscape to basic forms, showing you the furrows left by the plough but concerning himself more with the interplay of those lines with the horizontal and curving lines all around and the perspective receding into the distance. Both Young Corn and Fall Ploughing look down upon the landscape from an unlikely angle, neither that of a person on the ground nor that of someone looking down. This odd vantage point seems even more unsettling with absence of the people working the farm. Even in the 1930s, such works as Wood’s American Gothic and his landscapes could document the increasing disappearance of the agrarian lifestyle in America—a trend that has accelerated today to the point that the small-time farmer has, as in Wood’s Fall Ploughing, literally vanished.

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