Wood / Cone Show: Flat Visions From Midlands

There's a show down here through Feb. 28 that can pass for a real dud. It's called "Grant Wood and Marvin Cone: An American Tradition" and consists of about 60 paintings and drawings put together by the Iowa artists' hometown museum, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. There's no catalogue, just an earnest little brochure.

The thing that gets you to the San Diego Museum exhibition at all is the name Grant Wood, but if you think you're going to see "American Gothic" or "Daughters of the Revolution," forget it. Well, there is a sketch for the DAR, but most everything else dates from before the time Wood established his trademark style around 1930.

As for Marvin Cone, don't be embarrassed if the name escapes you. Even specialized books on American Regionalist painting leave the poor guy out. You get the feeling he was a local Iowa hero and the show may have been intended as one of those heartfelt gestures to bring wider appreciation to an undervalued talent. It doesn't exactly work, but the brochure's assertion that Cone's subject matter "possesses greater depth and universality" than Wood's does hold some water.

The whole exercise can escape being a waste of time if you let it do what all art does uniquely well--to act as a kind of container for a drifting mind. . . .

Well, ho-hum, this is pretty dull. A photograph of Wood makes him look like a scoldy Midwestern grandma with a curly perm and jowls. He's painting in a white outfit as if he's dressed to go to a baptism or a Fourth of July picnic in the Municipal Park. Who's that young comedian on TV who goes in drag as the church lady and says, "Well, aren't you special?" and thinks Satan makes everybody do everything? Wood looks like that.

His art is all over the place, either because he was a good guy who'd try anything or a voracious climber who'd try anything. Wood was about 28 when he painted that barn, "Old Sexton's Place." Nice fresh color but flabby form. The style still shows up in "Old Shoes" of 1926, a kind of homey, lazy, self-satisfied Van Gogh. But another style laces through it all--hard-edged lines. Sometimes they describe fantasy landscapes that are a combination of American folk and Flemish primitive art. Did he really design that Art Nouveau necklace and that iron folksy candle holder? He tries to get funny in a drawing of a plucked chicken called "Adolescence." Puts you in mind of Paul Klee's early "Female Phoenix," but Wood is somehow nastier and more judgmental.

Partly this show is like a student review where aspiring artists tack up a badly edited strew of their own work for evaluation by their instructors. The teachers want to be helpful rather than critical, so they start reading the work more for its revelation of character than its aesthetic merit, guiding the debutante to a place where all these gawky threads and false starts can blend into the expression of a whole personality. It's not a bad way to look at art; it leans to the generous and appreciative and keeps in mind what a personal thing art is. Personal, not purely idiosyncratic, because naturally the artist is also a product of the particular clock ticking in his town. When you look at Wood and Cone together, you find they had more in common than even their origins as high school buddies can account for. They both went to Paris to study, then came home to Cedar Rapids. Wood painted a big allegory called "The Adoration of the Home." A classical frieze of figures in pastel muslin togas stands in the middle of Cedar Rapids around an enthroned woman holding up a house that looks like you're in good hands with Allstate. You're pretty sure Mercury is the town postman persuaded to pose in the buff out of civic pride.

Today it looks like Wood was doing a vicious sendup of his friends and neighbors, but don't forget it was painted during a period of growing American isolationism and nationalism that produced a whole school of bumptiously local artists from Thomas Hart Benton to John Steuart Curry to Edward Hopper. Maybe Wood really believed Cedar Rapids was the New Athens. There is no end to the artistic imagination. Besides, they say it's a nice town.

Wood and Cone shared the making of an art that mediates between mixed motives. That's a hallmark of American art that laces its whole history, giving the best of it great inner tension and making much of it a little dull and worried. There's an aura of melancholy and self-doubt even in great painters like John Singleton Copley and Thomas Eakins.

The spiritual contenders seem to be American Practicality vs. American Idealism, slugging away in a ring, shaped like the fat jabberwocky cow that is the map of the U.S. of A. Do all us ex-foreigners really belong here anyway? American artists have had the unenviable job of fashioning a visual identity for the country and all its parts.

They say the best American art of all kinds is really made by mid-country people who move to the coasts. When they stay home like Wood and Cone, the art takes on a prairie dryness like baked-out air that you can see in Wood's mural of a cornfield. Something implacable haunts the art, like ghosts of farming forefathers who won't brook any guff or fanciness or big-city sin.

Cone's first work is a 1917 drawing of a female nude, as crisply done as a Durer and as ample and fecund as a wheat field, but her pubic area is blurred out like an airbrushed newspaper photograph. Cone was, in fact, a better artistic performer than Wood, but he kept evolving toward modernism without going the distance. There are spooky paintings of corridors in haunted houses that move up to the borders of surrealism without taking the plunge. Cone said they were inspired by detective and ghost stories, pulp fiction he liked to read in the evening.

Cone died in 1965, outliving Wood by 23 years. His last works are schematized cartoon-cubist compositions that look like works he really got a kick from doing, but they remain talismans of an artist who would rather follow his whim than deal with the whole picture. They look like work plenty good enough to maintain him as a local hero, but they're not interested in measuring up in a larger world.

Looking at this show is less like viewing art than perusing the raw materials for a very American novel about a profound question of what it means to be an artist. Wood is the character who finally makes it into big-time success, which locks him into a way of working he doesn't much like--he is famous, but his beloved works reek with bitterness. Cone goes his Cedar Rapids way, compromising happily with the demands of being a regular guy in a regular town, making what he feels like and leaving us with the old enigmatic choice between the success of failure and the failure of success.

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