Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931, Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 7/8 inches
Regionalism. The wide-open air that settles on the Midwestern agoras is heavy with the sticky oppressions of cultural stillness, corrupt power structures, and close, stifling folkways. Urbanism. The frantic richness, collaborative reinvention, and cacophonous promise of cities opens onto worlds of progress. There’s been an aesthetic dichotomy, too, with urban avant-gardes opposing strategies which engage with narrative, representational traditions. This has been among the modern century’s organizing metaphors. Even lately, many cosmopolitans in the cities and the deep blue islands of college towns, perhaps with their own orthodoxies, corrupt economies, fears, fetishes, folkways, myths, contradictions, and subtle oppressions, still organize the world accordingly.
Boy, the way Glen Milla played. Songs that made the Hit Parade. Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days. And you knew who you were then! Goils were goils and men were men. Mister, we could use a man like Hoibert Hoovah again! — Theme song from “All in the Family”, set in Queens, New York, 1971-1980
I live across from a vast, industrial farm field, the kind that consolidates the lands of several small farms—a capitalist version of collectivization—to make massive, single-crop fields, typically alternating corn and soy each year. Even so, the myth of the American pastoral lays like a golden sepia mist over this genetically novel monoculture. The fields and skies still look like what Grant Wood saw. I see grey thunderstorms over fields of pale cornstalks and seas of blue-green soy undulating under the prairie wind, and I think of Grant Wood’s paintings. I wonder how they can speak to us now. It seems urgent.
Up and down the roads here, empty farmhouses sit with their backyard apple trees, now ancient and twisted, next to the weather-worn ruins of collapsed barns, the wood silver with age (and ripe for the recent trend in upscale decorating with reclaimed wood). New barns, belonging to farmers who live elsewhere, are metal, with roof spans that can accommodate the kind of machinery needed to farm 1000 acres. (They are indistinguishable from the types of warehouse buildings found in urban industrial corridors.) The land is dotted with manufactured homes, shaped like shoeboxes and often moldy or mossy (like ours). Some are duplexes or small apartment buildings. Old trucks, machine parts and appliances, stacks of building materials, refuse fire pits (ours is recreational), and folding chairs crowd tiny yards. Some have gardens. Many have American flags, a few Confederate flags (I want to fly an Ecology flag). Trailers languish under big, shedding trees and new “sprawl” subdivisions have curvy networks of smooth, new roads and new houses with trendy dormer deformities and long, stony faces, putty-colored and full of tall windows. The “new country” neighbor to our south has a 15-foot, inflatable Bambi Christmas balloon in his front yard. Our “old country” neighbor to the north has a plastic Santa with a rifle and a deer-shaped array of white Christmas lights hanging from a tree. From its nose, a wonderfully abstract cascade of blood in red LED’s. The deer are everywhere.
Whose fields these are, I think I know, Monsanto makes ‘em GMO. They will not see me stopping here. The stock’s in my portfolio?! My little truck must think it queer to stop without a pole barn near, between the corn and soybean seas, to watch our natures disappear. — After Frost
With any luck, this old truck (Rare find. Purple ’98 F-150; reg. cab, LB, 6 auto., perfect for hauling, etc. (Perfect for me.)) gets me down these county roads to the Interstate. Museums appear on my Google Map! There is a Dick Blick outlet store in a patch of lonely woods amid the corn and soy fields in Shelbyville, Illinois, selling damaged 150-milliliter tubes of Williamsburg brand oil pigments; luminous earth colors and cadmiums dense and toxic as isotopes; brushes made of Chinese hogs’ bristle cloned from the skins of Iowa hogs, among other things the store’s truck-stop neighbors might think are queer.
According to didactics on museum walls, books I was given, and art-school hipster cultures, all of which have sought to organize my art viewing since childhood, American Regionalism was an essentially retrograde practice; the bad kind of populism, formed in xenophobic, rural, white identitarianism and nostalgia, an early expression of the disease that erupted in Trumpism. Nationalist and romantic, it trafficked in reassuring notions of everyday life in the Heartland, conservative in concept and aesthetic and constitutionally unable to evolve towards urbane Modernism’s revolutionary destinies, and so my love of it dared not speak its name. The recent Grant Wood show at the Whitney, and the writing about it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, Dennis Kardon in Hyperallergic, and Richard Meyer in the catalog essay, indicate that this is changing. There is a new interest in Wood’s American Regionalism, and an acknowledgement of who he was and his intentions with his work. Perhaps this new interest is inspired or made urgent by the shock of realization that the lived experiences and mental phantoms of flyover folk have consequences for everyone. Close examination of the paintings themselves reveals that his was a very queer eye.
Where can the horizon lie, when a nation hides its organic growth in the cellar?
— David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World
But there is something else also going on. Landscape is a set of operations; it is well-understood that the practice of framing is useful in establishing a difference between inside and out, structure and chaos, self and other, here and there. The history of landscape has rightly been theorized as a machine that manifests power relationships, inventing an ideological gaze, or a gaze that becomes ideological because of the selfish gene, or the will to power, or perhaps toxic masculinity depending upon one’s library. But there is a different kind of story available through landscape. My experience as a body in landscape is not one of transcendent objectification, or celebration or mourning over a sense of place, but rather of profound mirroring.
Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” is widely acknowledged as a landscape-as-body. Possibly, there are two bodies. This well-known work, often noted for what has been interpreted as a representation of pleasant idealized rural life, depicts a rolling corn field studded with nubby, nascent cornstalks. Soft, fair-weather sunlight creates subtle shadows on sensuous, bulbous swellings that represent hills which cradle a central, lowland field. Three tiny figures operate in the field, invoking the transcendent solipsism of engagement with the miniature. A simple, yellow farmhouse sits adjacent to a curving drive that borders a likely alfalfa field. The central hill’s subtle shadow reveals its topography, which resembles a belly sprouting a deliciously neat trail of body hair. In the distance, up in the top left corner of the picture where the head of the figure might be, a windmill faces us like an open eye. The pale color, though green in hue, has a value appropriate to represent a certain flesh tone, and the soil in the newly-sprouted cornfield that leads the eye into the picture is the color of slightly tan skin. The central cornfield, striped like fabric, lays across the hill’s hips like bedclothes. This gentle, erotic vista provides the kind of visual pleasure promised by landscape’s various ideologies, but something else happens here. Mirror neurons are activated. The landscape-as-body gives me a subject position not only in the narrative, but in the landscape itself. The tour around the scene is an inventory of my own physical being in the landscape, mirrored in the landscape; there is an equivalence between the space and me. In this representation, the ideology of landscape becomes one of erotic empathy and identification, delivered as poetic fable.
Artistic strategies of all kinds are productive when you have an MFA and teach in art schools. I am always thrilled by innovative strategies—they define notions of “progress” in our field. Educational privilege grants access to an understanding of those strategies, and to cryptic, avant-garde aesthetics. (These seem no sooner invented than co-opted by the dominant culture for purposes that serve existing economic structures, though trickle-down aesthetics arguably fortify the liberatory “soft power” of desire-based free markets.) These afford great pleasures in decoding and interpretation. Their novelty often demonstrates the stunning creative capacity of human cognition. But, all my life, I have loved art that also depends on elemental, ancient habits, art that is storytelling, skill-oriented, retinal, engaged with the project of re-presenting sensory phenomena, and representationally legible—in other words, pictures. Once I enrolled in art school, and joined the ranks of the institutionally initiated, I had to hide this. These strategies and aesthetics lacked prestige and cache. They were somehow corrupt, pilloried as “conservative”, as though this aligned them with conservative politics. In fact, the opposite is arguably true; the politics of representation and political ideals are sometimes at odds in institutional priorities. A great political potential lives in works which are democratically accessible, and represent working-class values like skill, and experiences from the margins, outside of the cosmopolitan intellectual life of cities—and, like Wood’s queer eye, can assert other identities, other experiences, other types of agencies, into our broader cultural discourse. The readmission of artists like Grant Wood into high art discourses may open the door to many more types of representation, inclusive of many more places, lives, and subjectivities.
Laura Hogin, The Sleep of Reason (Silver Bullets in the Garden of St. Augustine, Oil on canvas, 72″ x 96″, 2008
Laurie Hogin is an artist and writer who lives with her dogs, photographer husband, and teenage son in rural East Central Illinois. She teaches in the Studio Art Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.