As culture becomes more virtual, qualitative, global and for the last few decades fatigued from distancing itself from the epistemological and topographic world of our fathers and it shrinks from higher education offerings, its form and space fall more in sync with decades of old market obligations. The location of the vast majority of acclaimed artists and the hierarchy of their whereabouts has occurred through just reacclimatizing their original footprint. Representation of place has improved slightly. Inclusivity has been re-coded. But according to the artworld “visual culture” is still basically practiced in only three places.
Once I would have cringed about what continues to be reflected in an event like the Whitney Biennial. Last year The New York Times published data maps showing exactly where the geography of “victors” were for the exhibition’s entire history.1 It’s no surprise that artists circulating in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago consistently capture the most attention, but the degree of exclusion by state is tragicomic. The geographical rigidity of The Times’ maps is somewhat surprising as there has been chatter about museums across the country being much more attentive to local artists and regional culture. Perhaps the independent visions of the curators and artists and the nature of the museum promotions are establishing new curatorial niches, but where are the distinguishing markers in relation to other museums and cultural zones? Art museums stake their reputation on image but tend to miss real differentiation narratives in their back yard. What’s the purpose of having a regional museum if there’s not much to say about the value of local memory offering texture to juvenescence? That said, responsive institutions like the Figge Art Museum, the Stanley Museum of Art, and the Kohler Art Center seriously affirm a post-regional narrative.
The debate between urban and rural and between the hand and the machine in projected futurisms that straddled plainspoken and bohemian protocols was basically an exterior argument. Regionalism was considered cultish, novelty-challenged and still carries some of that burden. But there was more than the populist and the banal in the 1950s when national aesthetics were becoming academic and paradoxically European. There was enough preciousness and exclusivity to go around.
After several tours of France, Grant Wood stressed about being genuinely American and rural in his “Return from Bohemia.” The drawing is a caution about skill-set constraints as it focuses hard on the symbolic and personal. Yet for its time it’s a prescient, mournful, and charismatic picture. The artist accommodates his ghosts that hover behind his self-portrait while he glares at a condescending artworld that portrayed him as a recluse.
By now I should be used to the fact that contemporary art in the Midwest and other predominately inland cultural zones are largely sidelined in national trade magazines and events. With no consistent formal appraisal there is no path to a theory of the rural, other than just acknowledging its bottomless silence. Theory, on the other hand, is abundant in urban media, despite cities being chaotic and farcically parochial. It’s impossible to say what holds urban culture together, other than, of course, a very narrowly focused and highly manipulated market.
One might just say that commerce is a fair way to be real, but that’s not what urban constituents say. They say other half-truths that don’t explain how certain inland art disciplines have established themselves with localized practices. Chicago, for example, has world class identities in music, architecture, and theater, but visual art has trailed in comparison until relatively recently when Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates, Amanda Williams, Nick Cave, and Dawoud Bey began to re-invigorate the genres of painting, photography performance, comics, and interdisciplinary art, crossing over into music, architecture, and public art. Their work seems to be a cross between rural and urban – rural in the sense that their subjects are community centered and labor intensive, and urban in that they are polyglot and entrepreneurial. Like the most memorable architecture they serve more than one audience/user. They’re rock stars and philosophers with numerous disciples in the wings and plenty for an enterprising theorist to construct a fresh Chicago anti-school.
In a related vein, there are currently three comprehensive and celebratory exhibitions that connect the dots between community activism and fine art, revealing the power of place and the cultures who are re-defining it. “EntreHorizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, William Estrada’s solo exhibition “Multiples and Multitudes,”at the Hyde Park Art Center, and “Carlos Cortéz 100 AÑOS” at the National Museum of Mexican art. No longer is it possible for art audiences to be conflicted about what’s see-worthy.
Because this work feels equally fresh and mature and embedded in Chicago’s communities, using real spaces and objects, they stand in opposition not only to the escapist dross of global art, but with the insular, academic obsessions with artificial intelligence, post commodity, and trans-media. Instead, you’re getting a present with links to our past with positive, concrete, and indivisible potential.
My artwriting moniker for years was “Inland Art.” For the last year or so it’s been “Sub-rural” stemming from the idea that there is significant culture that’s not only on the periphery, as “sub-urban,” but can be seen from the other side, as “sub-rural,” stretching the credibility of content and context beyond the metroplex. It’s a way to consider de-polarizing urban vs. rural, as well as the dichotomies of space, race, gender, etc.
Apart from a distillation of folk and indigenous cultures’ art arises from any part of the history of place. It builds visual conventions over time, and its attributions are as important as how each is applied to the present. A continued conversation about place is something that seems lost in contemporary and global art, but it’s essential to see where the flow of form and subjects take shape and become modified as it’s where subjects and identities are birthed.
The only millennium-age art in the west that’s still being practiced are vernacular and craft forms. These are the fountainhead of rural aesthetics. They’ve lasted because of design excellence and ties to historical place narratives. The practice is about the believability of unsanctioned customs of knowledge, which is what art is basically. Issues like authenticity, nature, and mortality are its subtexts even if not clearly demonstrable, moral, or beautiful. Full-fledged trauma-fed countrification and its modest hybridity can hold oppositional values that are variations of truth for decades.
If an artist can’t find something relevant somewhere in an art historical narrative, if they’re not contributing to a variation on a sinuous extension of art language, some stage of image begetting images, then maybe they’re doing something other than art. Art is a conversation that requires a model of the world that can’t be expressed any other way than by building another model. But to make some art you have to be somewhere.
Inland and rural art each have inconvenient addresses. But the more our daily lives become dreadfully identical from shore to shore the more we need fresh variations of regional art to unpack authentic difference. If all art did was make that argument, I’d be OK it.