Offending Midwesterners: Contemplating the value of kindness in regional art

My mother’s parents grew up in Anamosa, Iowa, the same small town where Grant Wood was born.  He is the area’s claim to fame.  In my grandmother’s telling, he was considered “too modern” in his hometown during his lifetime—those “cotton ball” trees, and the implicit critique of the stiff couple in “American Gothic.”  But, if you go there now, you’ll see his name on billboards.

In my family, tradition holds that the house in the background of “American Gothic” was a farmhouse belonging to a relative of mine.  It doesn’t really matter if that’s true.   Probably, many of my grandparents’ peers identify with the painting.  There is satire in it, but also something like Norman Rockwell’s nostalgia.  If the piece is a jibe at its subjects, it is an affectionate one.

Wood’s iconic painting has been the first image in my mind associated with Midwestern Regional art.  Suffice it to say that I was unfamiliar with the work of contemporary print-maker Tom Huck.

Yesterday, I stopped in Sedalia, Missouri, at the State Fair Community College campus, where I had been advised there is an excellent museum of contemporary art.  The collection at the Daum Museum is, indeed, worth stopping for; the permanent collection includes striking glasswork by Dale Chihuly, an entrancing silkscreen portrait by Chuck Close, and a wonderfully bizarre ceramic sculpture by Michael Lucero.  The current temporary exhibition is the work of Tom Huck.  A small sign warns that “discretion is advised.”

The black and white woodcuts are of impressive scale and uniformly grotesque subject matter: misshapen characters engaged in complex scenes of violence, gluttony, and orgies.  Inspired by the local lore of his native Potosi, Missouri, his work is a brutal critique of life out of the mainstream and under the skin of rural Missouri.  I suspect the artist would agree that he pushes beyond the boundaries of good taste.  I also suspect he doesn’t care.

This is emphatically not the gentle satire of Grant Wood.  The residents of Potosi will never erect commemorative plaques for Huck.  (He lives and works in the relatively metropolitan haven of St. Louis.)

But his work does command fascination.  The intricacy is boggling, and if one ignores the repellant nature of the subjects, the compositions on whole are beautiful.  In the company of the sanctified likes of Warhol at the Daum, it begs the question: Are offensiveness and greatness in art related?

Is the distance between Wood and Huck an indication that, in the 79 years between “American Gothic” and “The Transformation of Brandy Baghead,” we have fallen from subtlety into uncouthness?    Should art strive for elevation or is there merit in unflinching critique?  Finally, is kindness in art a strength or a weakness?

In my short time at PS:, the only “regional art” we’ve shown has been landscapes: the oil painted streetscapes of Steven Rust, and  Notley Hawkins’ photo scenes of glistening dilapidation.  And perhaps there is a kindred strain between Grant Wood and Joel Sager’s affectionately melancholy domestic subjects.  But imagine seeing Tom Huck’s monstrous masterpieces here.  What would you think?



2 Responses to “Offending Midwesterners: Contemplating the value of kindness in regional art”

  1. April 2, 2013 at 3:32 am

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