March 30, 2022

Ever since it was first displayed at the Art Institute Chicago (AIC) in 1930, Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic” (1930) has captured the collective imagination. The painting, featuring a pitchfork-bearing farmer and his daughter standing in front of a Midwestern farmhouse, has become a symbol of American identity. Even in its own time, the image represented a kind of authenticity that instantly connected with its audiences.

The famous painting remains on display at the AIC to this day. Sarah Kelly Oehler, the museum’s curator of American Art, explained in a 2019 article why Wood’s work immediately resonated with American audiences when it was unveiled in 1930.

“The year before, the stock market had crashed, banks were failing, and the country was sinking further and further into the Great Depression,” Oehler wrote. “There was a real sense of desperation around the country and a sense of wanting to return to authentic American values. Wood tapped into that in this painting of two people in Iowa standing in front of an old house.”

Nearly 100 years later, fewer people can directly relate to the painting’s subjects, but the iconic image has been fodder for generations of pastiche that play off of and into the original’s status of depicting “real” America.

For her 2017 composition “The New American Gothic,” artist Criselda Vasquez reimagined the painting to include her parents, who are Mexican immigrants, posed in front of a red van, bearing the tools of their trades — a bucket of cleaning supplies in her mother’s hand and a hoe in her father’s.

“As the American-born daughter of two Mexican immigrants, I illustrate their plight and the plight of many in my community with my art,” wrote Vasquez, in a 2018 statement on Instagram. “I want to expose the heart-breaking pain of what a Mexican immigrant’s family goes through. I focus on bringing my family’s world into the light and out of the shadows.”

In honor of Native Heritage Month in November of 2021, artist Lehi Thundervoice Eagle presented a rendition of the piece that features a Native American father and daughter posed in front of a white teepee, with a trio of arrows standing in for the pitchfork.

“They tried to break us. But you can’t break something that is eternal,” the artist wrote in an Instagram post of the piece. “We are the sacred warriors that battle for the 7th generation to come; we battle for yours and ours. We are the hope for humanity. This is our heritage.”

Wood’s painting is so recognizable that even a pastiche like Vaquez’s that alters many of the original elements of the composition immediately connotes the original and forms a new chapter in the narrative of what it means to be an everyday American.

Brick artist Nathan Sawaya, internationally famous for his LEGO art, has his own version of the painting, bringing it into blocky three-dimensions.

“The strong characteristics of the two individuals were paramount in the creation of the brick replica version,” Sawaya told Hyperallergic in an email. “I wanted to capture the stern looks in my depiction, while also focusing on the conservative dress of the couple. For the background, I studied photos of the original farmhouse to properly depict to portions of the house that we do not see in the painting.”

And of course, the ideal venue for contemporary American Gothics are actual barns. Some examples are hyper-literal, like the piece created by Mark Benesh, a local middle school art teacher in Mount Vernon, Iowa, who created the barn-sized replica of the painting across the front of a privately-owned structure tucked away in trees off Route 30 in eastern Iowa. Others are contemporary-cool, like the barn art created in 2013 by the duo Hygienic Dress League (Steve and Dorota Coy) in Port Austin, Michigan, which depicts the painting’s two subjects in gas masks. These gas-masked characters often appear in the duo’s work, as representatives for their fictional corporation, which sells nothing, and recently filed with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) to create their official IPO.

It seems that even a century later, no matter who decides to take up a brush and make a statement about America might turn to “American Gothic” for inspiration. Even Benny Andrews’s 1971 “American Gothic,” which shares almost nothing in common with original besides the name, still manages to leverage the notion of American identity through the simple eponymous reference. In a sense, there is nothing more American than seizing something that already existed and reimagining it as part of one’s own story. Contemporary takes on the painting show no signs of letting up, making it a classic American tradition right up there with baseball and apple pie.

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