Monday, August 22, 2011

Grant Wood and Me Down on the Farm





Though I'm originally from upstate New York, I spent some six years in the Midwest starting when I was 18, first in Oberlin, Ohio and then in southern Indiana in Bloomington. And it was in the Midwest I became first a young artist and then a landscape painter. Looking back I'm amazed how much learning I managed to pack into those years. And I made great friendships there as well. So perhaps my past predisposes me to like some of the painters who sprang from the Midwest. One in particular is Grant Wood. 

Farming dominates and leaves an unmistakable imprint on the people living there. Grant Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and turned his sharp eye on the rhythms of planting and harvesting. He along with his Cedar Rapids compatriot, the artist Marvin Cone, turned the seemingly commonplace agrarian world into something almost mythic in their paintings. Their work has in it's own way the grandeur of the 19th century Hudson River School painters or the later nearly abstract landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe. 

I was invited to have my first solo museum exhibition in 1990 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in northeastern Iowa. CRMA by the way has the largest collection of both Grant Wood and Marvin Cone paintings anywhere and is well worth the visit. Recently they acquired and restored Grant Wood's nearby old painting studio so you can visit that as well.

Wood ran a summer art school in the small neighboring town of Stone City, IA. When I traveled out for the exhibition the museum people encouraged me to try it out for painting motifs as the area had proved a gold mine for sources for both Wood and Cone. I drove out there for a week of painting and found what had excited the earlier artists still very much there. Above is Wood's oil Stone City. To this day the little hamlet looks pretty much as it is in the painting. I was charmed as I remembered my 7th grade Social Studies textbook had carried a reproduction of that painting. It was one of the very first times I started really looking closely at any piece of art. Wood's unusual repeated arcing rhythms grabbed my eye- I wasn't sure at the time whether I liked them or not. Now I know I do.




Above is one of my all time favorite of Wood's oils. He's systematic as he goes about plotting the geometric pattern of his cone-like bundled stalks. I particularly love the gradations in the snow from warm highlights at the left turning slowly cooler and subtly darker as we move to the right. And the gradation in the sky from an olive brown to a dark charcoal grey at the right is nothing short of wild but it's convincing nonetheless.

Wood was also a master designer with how he selectively used patterned textures in the leaves  and bundled stalks that appear almost like a busy wall paper contrasted against the smooth furrows of white snow. Imagine for a moment how much less personality would be in the painting if one removes the decorative patterns on the plants and replaces them with smooth bland surfaces.

I love the Wood painting below as well for its maze-like network on the swelling hillsides. Maybe the texture gets a touch out of hand but I forgive the artist his excess.




I just finished working back into the canvas below, my oil Stone City Barns, 24 x 48", originally from 1991. It was done in the studio from a small on-location oil I'd done on a country roadside near Stone City. As luck would have it I always preferred the way the large version turned out. It had fewer highlights and came across as a more authoritative statement. So I gingerly went back into the small oil version intending only a few changes to bring it in tune with its larger cousin. Well, as so often happens, I started getting new ideas for other improvements and ended up mostly repainting the entire surface. The small piece improved noticeably. Almost like a ping pong match, I then had to repaint the big version to come up to the new level of the small study. 





I think that sort of back-and-forth conversation between small paintings and larger studio versions is almost always productive. Of course it is easier to try out new moves on a small surface. But you can't control or predict when or where insight and small breakthroughs will happen. Whenever and wherever you get a good idea, make a note of it. Insights are precious and have to be valued even when they come at unexpected and inopportune times. That's OK. Creativity isn't entirely logical, or perhaps it follows a logic we can't fully understand.






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