Heartland is about mid-western art: its existence, its creators and their motivations, its role and its history, and its place in the larger context of American and global culture. If that sounds like too big an undertaking for one show, you’re right – the Smart Museum show is only a younger sister, the second iteration of the exhibition which was first installed in the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands a year ago this month. Even with two halves and a thick catalog too, attempting to describe anything as complex, geographically expansive, and nuanced as a “mid-western aesthetic” just might be an exercise of well illustrated curatorial over-reaching.
I might as well address the issue of text, as the written word was so present in this show that it deserves first mention. Beside the many expository didactics and expansive catalog essays, almost every piece in the show included text in some way, whether the handwritten notes of Jeremiah Day, the speech bubbles of Kerry James Marshall, the acrylic tangents of Deb Sokolow, the books and magazines of Design 99, the annotated maps and posters of the Compass Group, the display case documentation of the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, the post-Katrina environmental guide notes of Marjetica Potrc; or even in the on page cursive titles of Joseph Yoakum, the pointed imagist exhibition posters, or the trippy and spare signage of Whoop Dee Doo.
Not only does this ubiquitous text element slow down and weigh the show, leaving few moments for the deep breath of visual experience and instead reducing many visual elements to on-site illustrations of written messages, it also projects a skewed view of mid-western art as overly wordy and prosaic. However appropriate text is in the individual installations comprising the show, including so many artists who use text in their work is simply inappropriate in a regional show like Heartland where commonalities will be mistaken for generalities. While it has its place in our history, I don’t consider text as all that uniquely mid-western and certainly don’t see it as the most salient aspect of mid-western art as suggested by its outstanding presence in Heartland.
Other than that the mid-west loves to write on their drawings, what do the Heartland artists here say about mid-western creative expression? For one, we are a people engaged in specific problems. There is little contemplation of the sublime or ephemeral or critically artistic, but many questions of the realities of race, class, poverty, urbanism among agriculture, and the repeating theme of the landscape, the river, the plain, and of narratives within them. Carnal Torpor‘s CalmDome might be the most lofty of the works included, and its about hiding from those realities.
For fans of Deb Sokolow‘s work (and really, who isn’t?), Heartland provides a healthy dose with Sokolow’s three-wall Dear Trusted Associate. While not very different in content from her recent large installations, it did have some added physicality, some minor but exciting roughness with her limited materials that I hadn’t noticed in her Spertus piece, The Way in Which Things Operate (speaking of which, check out this bizarre and absolutely awesome video version her cousin made for that one). In the context of the show, Sokolow’s direct references to real businesses and even people grounds the work in Chicago, but suggests a daydream longing for dramatic narrative within a mid-west mostly devoid of spectacle, intrigue, or surprise.
The big standout in Heartland is without question Kerry James Marshall’s Dailies, the masterful ink on newsprint drawings of which the Netherland crew got to see all forty but which only a limited selection could be exhibited here in the Smart Museum. Drawing from his Rhythm Mastr series, Marshall presents multiple, weaving narratives with heady dialog instantly translated in a foam of speech bubbles, as if each speaker were a South Side polyglot demon. Marshall is still a powerhouse, and I was thoroughly impressed.
There were plenty of other works present, including a rare collection of Imagist work, including the grossish and rocky exhibition flyers from the Hairy Who show; the large scale Oprah inspired digital collage by Artur Silva; a very strong double video piece by Julika Rudelius, which left me wondering among other things where and whether I can buy the leather furniture of the powerful; and a room full of curious but extremely poorly lit landscapes by Joseph Yoakum.
If you’re unable to visit the show, or if you want to read the accompanying essays, you can thankfully view the entire Heartland catalog online – however the good people who extended this kindness decided to do so while shitting all over the images by compressing them as much as possible. While a minor slight against every interested party who does not live in or near Chicago or Eindhoven for the sake of selling catalogs to those who do, this choice to digitally deface artwork in preference to the written word speaks volumes about the secondary role the visual side of visual art plays in Heartland.
In the end, Heartland just felt a little off, with content too dense and prosaic, and a context that not all the work included fit well into despite their individual quality. I would recommend seeing the show, but only because of the strength of certain artists’ installations, not the success or relevance of the exhibition’s thesis. I give the show itself a:
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