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Wood Work

Grant Wood and "American Gothic" come to the Renwick.

7:00 AM, Mar 10, 2006 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THE CURRENT WEEKLY STANDARD sports a nifty parody of Grant Wood's American Gothic. If you want to read a learned, balanced piece about the cultural context and significance of the painting, stop reading this and click here.

But if you happen to be in Washington, D.C., and want to lay your eyes on the real thing, head to the Renwick Gallery. The painting rarely travels--it has left its home at the Art Institute of Chicago only 30 times since it was installed there almost 80 years ago.

I have a long love-hate relationship with the Renwick, and the Grant Wood exhibit perfectly captures the reason why. The museum is a quirky, worthwhile part of the Smithsonian family. It features great works that might not be at home elsewhere--like American Gothic, which occupies a strange niche in the "serious art" pantheon. But just when you've fallen in love with the artist on exhibit, the Renwick springs some sort of fiddly little craft object on you--like the two seemingly useless, and fairly unattractive copper clips occupying prime real estate at the start of the Grant Wood exhibition. You puzzle over them, trying to figure out their aesthetic appeal, or why they matter historically--and then you move on.

Sometimes whole exhibits are overrun with these lumpy tidbits, but mostly they're just sprinkled in. Perhaps there are real connoisseurs of this sort of thing who love painters' failed attempts at pottery, and potters' failed attempts at portraiture. To each his own (or her own, I should say, since these "craft objects" seem to be favored primarily by women). These minor irritations should not keep one away from the Renwick's excellent Grant Wood exhibit or other offerings. In fact, if one had a less-than-sterling character, one might even find some malicious glee in running down these odder selections amidst the splendor.

Snippiness aside, the Renwick, more than any other member of the Smithsonian family, succeeds in balancing aesthetic and biographical interest in their exhibitions. I still remember The Furniture of Sam Maloof which, despite its unlikely name, turned out to be a marvelous biography and tutorial about thoughtful furniture and cabinet making--subjects about which I otherwise couldn't care less. There was even a smooth, elegant Maloof rocking chair for visitors to plop down in and try out for themselves.

The Renwick's Grant Wood exhibit points out--just gently enough--that Wood was a junior high school art teacher who lived with his mother. The idea that Wood could have seemed, at one point, to be just another art instructor who (perhaps) talked too much about his trip to Europe and had big dreams made me feel closer to Wood. Such low-key appreciative revelation is what well-written placards and carefully selected biographical objects offer at their best.

The exhibit also succeeds in conveying a goofy side to the man who became famous for depicting such dour figures, by displaying larger-than-life photo drapes of the artist's studio and funny artifacts, like his signature round spectacles, a chandelier made of corn cobs, a dingbat of a hand pointing to "Grant Wood's Studio," and a door made out of a coffin lid.

A few choice examples of Wood's early "highly derivative paintings" from the period after "he made his obligatory pilgrimage to Paris in the 1920s, and was overwhelmed by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art" are presented, and they make one admire his mature work all the more. (And surely provide hope to every amateur painter who contemplates them.)

Wood's commercial art, in contrast, is surprisingly pleasing. His depiction of a scene labeled "Adoration of the Home" is a hilarious take on real estate envy, and his straightforward paintings of factories and a tin of something called "breakfast oats" are oddly soothing and appealing.

But just when the momentum is really picking up, you are confronted with a wrought iron fireplace cover, or a rather ordinary looking folding screen, both of which Wood had a hand in designing. A mother-of-pearl necklace looks like something one could pick up at Macy's. Perfectly nice objects, to sure, but without curb appeal for the initially uninterested layman--a category that includes me and surely encompasses most of the Renwick's visitors.

The exhibit ends with a fizzle. The display of a vase, a fabric pattern, and an armchair/chaise lounge barely manage to capture the visual appetite after the dynamic duo of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and American Gothic.

The Renwick has to return American Gothic before the exhibit ends (Chicago wants it back for tourist season), so it's understandable that they had to devise another finale, but still: an armchair and a vase?

All told, the exhibit is quite spiffy, and the star painting is, as Paul Cantor notes, worth returning to after all the parodies. And even if regionalism isn't your thing, the building housing the Renwick is reason enough to visit the museum. Saved from destruction by Jackie Kennedy in the '50s, it sits on prime real estate, right across the "street"--or, as the closed-off section of Pennsylvania Ave. is now known, the roller hockey rink--from the White House. The old-fashioned, jammed, rose-colored Grand Salon alone is worth the trip.

Adopted by the Smithsonian in 1965, the Renwick now calls itself the "Smithsonian American Art Museum: Renwick Gallery." Perhaps the strange fondness for art ephemera that so galls me stems from the museum's original charter, to be a "gallery of art, crafts, and design." Its original purpose was to be something apart, something different from a plain ol' art museums. And in that, it succeeds.

Grant Wood's Studio: Birthplace of "American Gothic" at the Renwick Gallery. Showing March 10 through July 16, 2006.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a 2005 Phillips Foundation Fellow.