It’s no secret that the east coast art economy attracts more industry affiliates than it can support. Subsequently thousands artists become dispersed in differently-sized communities with their own subjects, traditions, and patronage each year. The ideal place for artists to thrive is a conundrum. The coastal establishment is tainted by monoculture and inland culture is affected by remoteness. Cultural capital exists in communities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Successful centers thrive on a few enlightened donors and progressive local governments, and museums. An abundance of thriving writers, musicians, and architects are comfortable, often prefer, living where a less mythologized, more coherent and accessible history of place makes coastal culture seem alien, and expendable. Why should studio artists be different? Well, they’re not.

June Leaf “Untitled” (1951), ink on paper, 7 x 9.5 inches

Contributing to geographic, political, and economic mayhem, some of the most able visual artists are increasingly peripatetic. Whether trans-cultural or settled inland either confirm that the coasts are not the only residences for difference makers. Individual mediums such as printmaking, public sculpture, and ceramics have long enjoyed variety of regional patronage. The proliferation of artist residencies has muddied things a bit by creating attenuated hives of local otherness, post-placeness, sanctuary, and pleasantly unfashionable art colonialism.

Inland culture, with its own brand of urban sophistication is serious in Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis et. al. There’s an increasing appreciation of inland culture by younger artists who can’t afford the economic sacrifice of coastal hubris. Refuge is a factor for those who relate more to a serene environment for their work and their sanity. The change in critical tone with respect to inland dwelling in the last decade is noteworthy. Dismissive histories of regional art, codified by coastal journalists, is now as obsolete as the privileged Manhattan critic. Of course, there’s still a gulf between the elite centers and the unofficial life of aesthetic willfulness, vernacularism, and monoculture revulsion that marks inland art. The earnest, unfettered, and unaligned experience surrounding inland culture is radical but far from being sorted out.

The Midwest breeds patience, notwithstanding there’s just three key sites of aesthetic expertise and research nationally. We tend to forget that despite America’s power, and wealth, we’re a comparatively awkward, xenophobic, young nation still shaking out what we value besides fortune. Of the three metropolitan art labs, New York has more acquisitive bonds with global partners than it does in the states. It absorbs, condenses and brands the most elite, creative strategies, but it squanders as much as it retains. It has to save column inches for the next global, faux-debate and spectacle.

Yet New York institutionalism actually depends on the provinces. Inland culture invests in their research, modifies, and tweaks it in scores of regional art institutions. They provide a vigorous cultural wellness factor by predicting which trends or theory deserve sustenance once New York tires of funding them.

But the art that the provinces adopt isn’t just cool stuff the coasts kicked to the curb. What’s chosen for “make-overs” are already in the air, via independent and simultaneous breakthroughs more common in scientific research but increasingly true in art and design. Perceptual flashpoints simultaneously seed laboratories, workshops and studios that resonate in graphic harmony. Midwest culture also pricks up its ears and fleshes out ideas thought to be exhausted, and/or unprofitable – a process that holds change accountable.

“The City” is unassailable, but so is the way culture is re-distributed and re-invented across the country. Inland distributions sites are not, and never were just symbols of the past. In fact, they’re more likely premonitions of the future. Metropolises constantly shed their identifying skins – a requirement introduced back when the avant-garde first infiltrated academia. There they morphed into something more contemplative and ritual-based after drifting down from coastal exospheres.

Nancy Spero, “Gunship, Gouache & ink on paper, 1966

Urban behemoths and the coasts are all about the present but not automatically the future. The speed of California change, for example, blurs content. Cities are hyper-designed and beyond crowded. Inland culture on the other hand conjures the present with more of an eye on the past. It’s relatively unaligned, not financially speculative or obligated. In fact, Midwest artists have an accumulation complex and don’t feel the future materialistically. They’re realists and consigned to the fact that virtue deserves neither prompt gratification or paradise.

Case in point is the remarkable longevity of Chicago’s first modern art movement, the Monster School, which didn’t have much forward motion until after their mid-century prime. Its status took a lifetime because it was so contrary to the regime consolidating New York City’s world art power. The “Monster” artists resisted the solipsism of abstract expressionism and launched a figurative style of avant-gardism that would not forgive the failings of the Modern.

The Chicagoans were immersed in a fusion of Surrealism, German Expressionism, and Indigenous South American art and were hooked on the extensive holdings of Chicago’s Field Museum. Its sacral representations of nature, amplified their struggle with primal crises like prolonged WWII trauma and relentless cold war anxiety. They became the country’s first example of a deliberative post-modern studio practice, which rather than staging art reductively, insinuated the complexities of the local with the reflexive and the universal.

Seymour Rosofsky” The Family II” Oil on Canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
Gift of the artist’s Estate

The Monsters were real and it’s no secret they set the stage for the stubbornly independent kind of art that can still haunt Chicago. These artists, some who were immigrants and saw combat, clearly had an ominous reading of tea leaves. Consequently, they felt the need to embed their work with the instability/panic they felt about the future. What prevented them from initially garnering more immediate enthusiasm is a condition that still vexes some inland culture – entrenched geographic disparity, a lack of critical resources, and doubt. Their absorption of Existentialist philosophy did little to ameliorate their culpability in initiating one of the longest apocalyptic zeitgeists. Civilization under threat has remained a tormenting cyclical trope.

In the mid 70s my graduate professor Joshua Kind  expressed disbelief that I had no knowledge of Monster principal Seymour Rosofsky. Kind was a Renaissance scholar who was skeptical of contemporary practices that abandoned the Continent. I was having enough trouble understanding why Imagists’ graphic reveries drew so much patronage compared to their predecessors. Most generations of Chicago otherness were mysteries to me.  I came to understand the Imagists’ fixation on outsiderness and spectacle as partly a reaction to the Monsters’ bleakness and generational deference for classical art. Rosofsky’s haphazard painterliness, clouded compositions, and distressed figures, still throw me. He could bloody paint and JK’s admonition was spot on.





Paul Krainak
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