Where the Heart Is: The Smart Museum Discovers the Real America

At the Smart Museum’s student sneak preview of “Heartland,” curator Stephanie Smith asked the audience what they had expected from the title. Quilts, admitted one woman, shrugging. The title recalls images of hard-working, humble, and devout farm families working to feed all of America, their art limited to hand-stitched flags and corncob sculptures. In popular consciousness, Americana, or even the less kitschy but just as stereotyped American Regionalist style, represents the sum of Midwestern artistic achievement and thus makes it safely dismissible. But the show, organized by a collaboration between the Smart and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, presents art which is as politically informed, educated–and yes, hip–as anything on the coasts, albeit less narcissistic. “Heartland” emphasizes the communal aspect of many art projects in the Midwest, displaying objects and performances made by collaboration, but the modern small town includes black, female, and even foreign artists who help to redefine the heart of the country.

A stated goal of the project is to demonstrate how artists work in and respond to their surroundings, and artists are grouped by region to help the viewer tease out some spirit of the place through the artists’ treatment of common themes and subjects. Whoop Dee Doo, a Kansas City sibling of Chic-A-Go-Go, stages live performances of a faux children’s television show; the group’s twenty or so members make art independently and with other groups, including their gallery neighbor Cody Critcheloe and his glam-rock band SSION. To be honest, it’s not clear what part of Kansas City is reflected here. Perhaps it is a place artists wish to escape from, whether through make-believe or in Carnal Torpor’s “Calm Dome,” a padded, cradling sphere that hums softly to the visitor resting inside.

The connections between Detroit artists and their city are portrayed more clearly, helped by the relative transparency of their media. Scott Hocking’s dreamy photographs of abandoned interiors make a beautiful thing out of urban decay, particularly in “Ziggurat–East, Summer, Fisher Body Plant #21,” for which the artist built a pyramid out of the floor’s concrete blocks in a wall-less, stalactite-filled auto factory. Design 99’s “Heartland Machine” transformed a broken boat into a thing with wings, outfitting a small motorboat on a trailer with multicolored scrap-metal wings and taking it on a road trip across the Midwest.

Detroit presents the most interesting challenge to the stereotypical idea of the Heartland: the foreign artist working in America. Marjetica Potrč, a Slovenian architect, designed a wind turbine and solar panel system for the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for teenage mothers that runs a student-staffed farm in urban Detroit. Potrč has made an international career working extensively with nonprofit and charitable agencies, and her work exemplifies the kind of cooperation which offers hope for revitalization in economically-depressed cities like Detroit. Her inclusion, along with that of German video artist Julika Rudelius, reflects the international character of the exhibit itself: originally presented in The Netherlands during the 2008 presidential campaign, “Heartland” was meant to introduce Europeans to a facet of America everyone thought they knew but didn’t. Charles Esche, co-curator and director of the Van Abbemuseum, said that when he came to the United States to research the project, his expectations mirrored those of the students; he especially hadn’t understood the role of religion in middle America, and how religion can penetrate secular life when a town’s only meeting place is the church. This issue isn’t explicitly dealt with in the exhibition, but at some distance from the artistic subjects, an objectivity conferred by unfamiliarity remains.

After the Hyde Park Art Center’s series of discussions on the Chicago art scene last year, it’s surprising that Heartland deals so little with Chicago artists. Kerry James Marshall, Alabama-born but now living in Chicago, is a notable exception; he is also one of the few black artists represented. His “Dailies,” comic strip-like panels of street life, are visually arresting, but suffer from a lack of curatorial notes and context. Chicago, unlike Kansas City and Detroit, doesn’t merit a gallery room to itself; instead Marshall is placed in a group called the Radical Center alongside scattered artists of the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor. Perhaps it’s time that the rest of the region receives attention, but Chicago’s diverse artists are still too often forgotten.
Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through January 17. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, Saturday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu

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