Lecture covers Iowa artist's work

BY JULIA JESSEN | APRIL 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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The couple depicted in Iowa native Grant Wood's American Gothic painting are known across the world. A man stands stoically next to a woman, holding a pitchfork and wearing glasses. His overalls are dressed up with a jacket on top. The woman stares off to the right with worried eyes and a single tendril of hair escaping from the rest.

"It's one of the most recognizable pieces of art," said Saffron Henke, an assistant director of the Grant Wood Colony. "They've said it's second only to the Mona Lisa and parodied as much."

Wood and his work, including American Gothic, will be discussed Friday and Saturday at Art Building West during the course of the third "Grant Wood Biennial Symposium: Grant Wood Today."

The symposium is a production of the Grant Wood Colony, an organization that strives to uphold Wood's mission of keeping a fully functioning artist's colony going. The group also has a fellowship program that gives one printmaker and one painter residences, time to work on their art and research, and the opportunity to teach in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa.

"Our goal is to share the legacy of Grant Wood at the University of Iowa," Henke said.

The symposium will involve six presentations, an exhibition of the Grant Wood Fellows' work, and discussion of the artist.

One of the speakers is Wanda Corn, a professor emerita of Stanford University, who will give the keynote presentation, "The Three Lives of Grant Wood's American Gothic."

"I'll be talking about how the image became iconic and in what ways it became iconic," she said. "I don't see it as having just one kind of appeal, but rather, it's a painting that can be interpreted time and time again by people who make satires or takeoffs or use it in some way in popular culture."

Corn said the work was seen in different ways by art historians as well as those in popular culture.

"It's now seen as a very important work in art history, where once, they thought it was provincial work — an embarrassment almost to American art," she said.

In addition to Wood's sense of humor and his use of pattern and abstraction, Corn said, she enjoys the way he captured certain ideas of Midwestern people and the Midwestern landscape.

"I like the way in which he thought about the character of the men and women during his lifetime," she said. "He tried to capture a kind of human being and a set of lifestyles he thought were particularly Midwestern and not regional to the Northeast or the deep South or the far West."

This year's Grant Wood printmaking fellow, Tyler Starr, said he identifies with the artist because Wood studied internationally in Paris for some time, and Starr spent the past seven years in Japan.

"I have some things in common with him in the sense that I'm also trying to interpret some of these things I learned overseas and looking again at the things around me here in the States," he said.

Wood taught for a while at the University of Iowa, and Corn said Wood's ties to the school and the state will make the symposium interesting.

"For the university audience, what will be very interesting to them is the degree to which his art was shaped by being an Iowan," she said. "He is sort of the state's native son and a very important artist in telling something of Iowa's history."

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