Public Art Display Has Fun with 'American Gothic'

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Michaelson

During the last three years the streets of urban North America have been inhabited by herds of cows, pigs, horses, moose and even beagles (ala Snoopy). This year, we find furniture decorating the thoroughfares of Chicago while Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adorns its streets with reproductions of perhaps the most famous couple in the world of art - the stern-faced man and woman who are the subjects of Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic."

This East-Central Iowa community of 110,000 calls its newly installed public art (on display until Oct. 1) "Overalls All Over: An American Gothic Happening." It's fun, it works and it is entirely appropriate. Wood was born and raised in and around Cedar Rapids. He returned there after studying in Chicago and Paris, full of new ideas for showing off Iowa's furrowed hills and whistling windmills as well as his hometown neighbors and even the deepening creases in his mother's face.

"My early work is the result of going around that very gorgeous territory where I live and not seeing it," said Grant Wood. "I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa."

Grant Wood exploded onto the American art scene in 1930 when he won the $300 prize in an annual show at the Art Institute of Chicago. The subject was a little story-and-a-half house with a pointed Gothic-style window that he'd stumbled upon and sketched on the back of an envelope. His Cedar Rapids dentist Dr. McKeeby and Wood's sister Nan posed as a straitlaced Iowa farmer and daughter. He called the work "American Gothic."

The painting caused a sensation and drew wildly enthusiastic crowds to the museum and later in England, where Londoners flocked around it. Today, the painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago as one of its best-known works.

Nan's face competes only with Whistler's mother and the "Mona Lisa" as the most recognized female in art. Wood's stern-faced duo became household figures in TV commercials and appear in cereal ads, on billboards, on neckties and even on a postage stamp issued by the United Arab Emirates.

Wood was almost always photographed wearing overalls. In fact, he spent his days at his art studio and as a high-school teacher dressed in the same blue denim as his American Gothic farmer.

Of his dour-faced subjects Grant Wood noted: "If I paint people the way they look, they don't think anything of me. If I paint them the way they want me to, I don't think anything of myself."

The Cedar Rapids exhibit challenges visitors to "Just try to keep a straight face!" when viewing 29 life-size parodies ("fun couples") who show up around town in all manner of newfangled costumes. These American Gothic wannabes are dressed as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, as street mimes, as ice-hockey player and softball player and as bicyclists ("American Spokes-persons"). You'll find the duo wearing Czech and Dutch folk costumes, as dentist and nurse ("American Dental Gothic"), and as newscaster and paper deliverer ("Overall Coverage"). A half-clothed version is called "Anatomical Gothic."

Take time to visit the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Housed in a bold, contemporary building, it has 17 galleries and contains the world's largest collection of paintings by Grant Wood. It also houses a nonpareil collection of the paintings of Marvin Cone, a friend of Grant Wood. Cone and Wood spent time together in Europe during the 1920s.

With one in five residents of Czech descent, Cedar Rapids celebrates this heritage at the National Czech & Slovak Museum. …