Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Triple 'A' Monday - Grant Wood and Regionalism

During the late 80's and into the early 90's when I was still trying to figure this art thing out (I'm a little closer), I embarked on a semi-literate journey to explore works of art and artists that I had always heard of, but knew little of. One of the pieces that warranted investigation was 'American Gothic' by Grant Wood. Few people outside of the art world know the work by name, but I can assure you that everyone knows the painting on sight. It is as iconic as it gets:

Though I love the painting, what endeared me to this work was the story behind the canvas:

Grant Wood was born in 1891 in Iowa and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After WWI he traveled to Europe and was influenced by the technique used by Jan Van Eyck, a 16th century Flemish oil painter. During the 20's, he became one of three artists (Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John Steuart Curry of Kansas) known for their aggressive rejection of the european abstract movement in favor of more figurative and representational art that depicted surrounding urban and rural life. The idea of painting your immediate surroundings came to be labeled as 'regionalism'. In a phrase - paint what you know. What they knew was the midwest. Grant was drawn to the visual of the gothic revival style seen on a cottage (the upper window reflects the gothic medieval pointed arch) and wondered what 'kind of people' would live there. Using his sister, Nan, as a model for the woman and his dentist for the farmer, the painting reflected the rural lifestyle and informs the work.

The painting was displayed at an exhibition at the Art institute of Chicago in 1930. Grant won $300 for the painting and as they say, the rest is history. 
The 26" x 31" oil has come to represent Americana and has been satirized on many fronts which tells you how deeply ingrained in American lore it has become as well as being a primary symbol of the regionalist movement.

The concept behind 'regionalism' really hit home. I wasn't so much interested in the visuals of Americana, but rather, the theoretical planks in the movement's platform -
paint what you know. I understood and interpreted this to mean that if I wanted to connect with my audience in an authentic way, I needed to infuse my work with imagery and ideas that gave the viewer greater insight into what I knew. And what did I know - what was my brand of regionalism...Black America. That was to be my point of view. I felt so strongly about this approach to art that I illustrated it an early painting titled 'Point of View'.

"Point of View"
55" x 80"
silkscreen on canvas

What I declared with this piece was plain and straightforward - I don't care what's on the audience side of the canvas (which is why I painted it black) - this here ain't about you, I'm not painting to please you, nor am I painting to sell anything to you - I'm painting for me. That's me behind the canvas, eyeing, spying and seeing the world from a new perspective through the art. Everything I've painted since then attempts to duplicate this simple philosophy - use my art to illustrate my perspective as a black man in America. Pull the audience behind the canvas and let them see what I see, hear what I hear, feel, question, challenge, accept, reject or interpret. They may not understand it at times, but hey, sometimes I don't either which is why I often use the canvas to ask myself and others those questions.

As an homage to a philosophy that would guide me throughout my career as well as a sincere 'thank you' to Grant Wood and 'regionalism', I painted 'Black American Gothic'.  

"Black American Gothic" (original)

This was my take on Wood's classic. He used the image of the farmer and spinster daughter to illustrate his world, I used Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. The story of Black America is one of slavery, survival, transformation and adaptation. To me, nothing reflected that more than Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. Who were they? Madison Avenue's version of fictional characters based on factual lives to market products. The history of rice production in the American south and its association with slavery is well documented. So is the use of 'uncle' to refer to old black men (Uncle Tom - Uncle Remus, etc). The same applied to Aunt Jemima. They represented docile domestic acceptance on the part of whites and as such became effective pitchmen.

Later on I looked at this piece and decided to update it in three separate paintings bearing the same title 'Black American Gothic'. 

 It slowly dawned on me that Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell had now replaced the former duo as America's most trusted faces. As a disclaimer, I have nothing against Oprah or Colin (what a great name!) - I simply used them to illustrate a point. I also added Tiger Woods to the mix to complete the 'family' motif. Oprah and Tiger are two of the biggest brands in the world of marketing and Colin Powell, one of the most 'trusted' blacks in America, so much so that he was used by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war to the United Nations and the American public. 

So there you have it. Now you know why Grant Wood is one of my favorite artists and has informed and influenced my outlook on art. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey there Colin, I just reread this piece and it's dense and illustrative and so illuminating. I am thinking here, asking myself the question - what's my point of view? What's my region - emotionally and psychologically? The answers that are coming are already a little bit haunting.
    Thanks. Keep writing.
    I also love the description of yourself under that dear little photograph.