A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Feb 3, 2010
10:39 AM

Issues of Identity

Issues of Identity

Before visiting the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition, Apple Pie: Symbols of Americana in MMoCA’s Permanent Collection, I tried to predict the icons and imagery I might encounter.

I had a feeling I’d see cowboys and countryside, cars and corn. And I did. But what I didn’t anticipate was how strongly the works in this exhibition raise questions about the veracity of such symbols, or at least their history and context.

Ameican Pie features more than eighty paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture and objects, and the subject matter is diverse, from the wild west and horses to baseball and rural fields to politics, city life and the single-family home.

But even with the most seemingly obvious symbols of American life, nothing is as straightforward as one would expect. There’s a hidden story or an intentional spin or a bait-and-switch feel to much of the imagery.

For instance Luis Alfonso Jiménez’s Vaquero depicts a man on a bucking horse. The image is dynamic, powerful and fun, embellished with glitter. But it also makes a serious point, that the first cowboys in the American west were Mexican.

And then there’s John Steuart Curry’s large-scale painting of Madison. The landscape shows a pleasant view of the isthmus taken from the vantage point of an imaginary bluff. It’s a beautiful view but one that doesn’t exist.

Some works are more subtle in their questioning. John Shimon and Julie Lindemann's Thecla Bertsche Keeps Busy and a Very Tidy House [pictured above] offers a familiar scene: Grandma sitting at her kitchen table. But it makes you think about why the image is nostalgic—and whether it's a good thing. Was this woman happy with her life? Was hers the ideal situation for women in this period of American history?

But perhaps the most shocking works in the exhibition are photographs from Larry Clark’s Tulsa series documenting violence and vice of the drug scene in the 1960s and ’70s. One photo in particular, of a woman with a black eye lying in bed, is disturbing and offers a glimpse into far less glamorous side of that era.

MMoCA intends for the works in this show to challenge. It states on its website: “Works of art in the exhibition function as a fulcrum for exploring America’s archetypal symbols and for investigating the divide between the diverse experience of American life and the persistence of its core iconic images and themes.”

To be sure, it’s an interesting experiment to try. Before you check out the exhibition, think about what symbols represent America to you. Then see if they’re represented at the show. If they are, notice how they’re presented. If they aren’t, ask yourself why. Either way, you’re likely to be surprised.

Apple Pie runs through April 11 at MMoCA. A special event, “Celebration of Americana,” featuring a poetry reading and jazz performance takes place February 5, 5:30–8 p.m. For more information, visit mmoca.org.

Photos courtesy of MMoCA.

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About This Blog

As managing editor at Madison Magazine, I'm also an unabashed arts enthusiast. Paintings, plays, music, movies—I'm intrigued by all forms of creative expression. I enjoy talking with artists and sharing their insights, challenges, inspirations and latest endeavors. Check in regularly for details on events, previews and reviews, artist interviews and more! 

– Katie Vaughn
Follow Katie on Twitter @katiemv

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