Illusions of Eden - a Review

This review of the exhibit Illusions of Eden at the Madison Art Center was written in 2001. The Madison Art Center is now called the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
On entering the Madison Art Center's gallery the viewer is confronted with Grant Wood's Appraisal. The painting depicts an midwestern farm wife presenting a chicken for inspection to a customer. The painting presents midwesterners as Wood knew them: rural, warm and quirky.

Just around the corner is a contrasting vision of the midwest: four rusting steel forms the size of elephants. Malcom Cochran's sculpture Steel Tanks and Delivering Mail presents a vision of the midwest that is decidedly more grim.

The exhibit is titled Illusions of Eden: Visions of the American Heartland. It is an ambitious exhibit for the Madison Art Center, filling all three floors with paintings and photographs from the regionalist movement of the 1920's, 30's and 40's. Interspersed with the regionalists work are pieces by four contemporary artists

The exhibit attempts to unify the contemporary pieces and the historical works by grouping them thematically. Using the themes of journey, garden, home, word and work the curators have established a framework with in which to compare how these themes have been and are perceived by artists of disparate times.

Of course the times were different then. Apart from the hairstyles and fashions, We see images of industrial might and union activity that remind us of where we were before de industrialization began. Just around the corner from contemporary artist Malcom Chochran's massive steel forms are two photographs taken at Milwaukee's Alis Chamers plant in 1930. The photos of the enormous machinery being created there make the Chochran sculptures seem like fossils of an earlier age.

Another striking contrast is the relationship between the artist and subject. The earlier artists seem to have looked the midwest in the eye and put down what they saw: be it farm life, religious fervor, or labor disputes. Often they transformed the mundane into something extraordinary as in Carl Gaetner's elegant composition of Freighters or Marvin Cone's Strange Vigil, : an eerie interior scene. As a whole the paintings show a lot of pride in who and what they depict. These were artists who were consciously trying to forge an identity for the region and proudly show it to the world.

In contrast the contemporary works seem to look at the world in a much more filtered manner. The work Home Theater by Kerry James Marshall is a good example. Rather than simply 'depicting' as his predecessors might have, Marshall uses context to builds up layers of meaning. Marshall puts a house on a stage, two TV's play within the house, the stage and house appear to have been taken out boxes that have been shipped from Bucharest...and on and on. The effect is to engage the viewer in some suthing to figure out why this house was put here in this manner.

The cleverness of Marshall's piece is precisely what distinguishes it from the Regionalists. This new generation has traded in skill with the brush and an intimate connection with their subject/audience. In it's place has come an art world of insiders who cultivate being "in the know" and eschew "accessibility". In an age of coy and ironic art the straightforward approach of the regionalists is very refreshing. "What the heck just put the guy in the center of the canvas and paint him the way he looks."

On a fundamental level the contemporary works stand out from the earlier works in terms of shear mass and volume. The resulting effect is an impression of modern abundance in contrast with earlier frugality. Conversely the old guard comes across as a "can do" group pulling off as much or more with a few square feet of canvas than the moderns can do with ten tons of steel or a room full of video monitors.

Using size and weight as a criteria may seem like an unreliable measure of aesthetic value, the ultimate lowbrow measure of taste, but it seems that a show about the midwest should embody midwestern values. Like the woman in Grant Wood's painting who wants to feel the meat before she buys her chicken, midwesterners have always been frugal especially with art, and the contemporary section of the show violates that.

Anyone who has been involved in the arts in the midwest has been confronted by that question "can you do it any cheaper" in one form or another. Perhaps in a way the curators of this show were also conforming to that norm; it is probably cheaper to bring on four "big names" than to do the leg work needed to mine the cultural gems living and creating art in the midwest.