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Heartland at the Smart Museum of Art – Closing Curatorial Talk

Carley Demchuk

On January 17th, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago brought its Heartland exhibition to a close, but not before curator Stephanie Smith lead an enticing curatorial tour and talk.  Through this talk, the works came more alive and the pieces of the puzzle came together: why did the exhibit artists from only those cities?  what was so intriguing about this barn that it’s now painted on the wall? The goal of Heartland was to bring to light those artists within America’s heartland who are using the resources around them to create a sense of place, community and culture.

The term “heartland” is used to describe America’s Midwest and the Great Plains.  But, in this exhibition it was also synonymous with the literal heart, ♥, that, when drawn over a map of the US, covered the community and city space from New Orleans (the bottom point of the heart) up to Detroit and Minneapolis.  Each work dealt with place, whether it was Kansas City or Chicago, and whether it was an American artist from that city or a European artist who just happened to live in that city.  Thus, there were American and European responses to the respective city places, giving the exhibition a sense of insider and outsider art, as Stephanie Smith put it, while maintaining a sense of creation and beautification in each city.

For example, in her work, Power from Nature, Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc focused on a barn in Detroit, documenting how people self-generate to work through social problems and community decay.

She included a wall-sized photo of the barn overlain by her own notes and maps charting the growth of this community.  In doing so, she documented this urban farming as a serious shift in land-usage, proclaiming, “The green catalyzes change.”

From Kansas City, American artist Cody Critcheloe and his band, SSION, exhibit Boy.

Cody, who previously only ever performed live and never had his work exhibited in a museum institution, strove to bring his art, dancing, singing and performance art into a museum without killing the vitality of the experience within this video installation.  To experience this work in full, you must put on headphones and watch the sixty minute video, which is Cody’s proverbial mouth in the work. His face is painted on the wall, with his forthcoming iconic mustache over the TV, where his mouth would be.  This painting is crucial in connecting Cody’s self image in Kansas City to this dehumanized screen.  The TV becomes personified by a simple facial representation.

The interesting part about this exhibition is that it began with the traditional American idea of “road trip!” to discover these hidden artists in America’s heartland.  Lines of communication were crucial in finding the next destination.  One artist in Kansas City might’ve lead the curator’s to another artist in Columbus, or Chicago, or back to Detroit. There’s a real sense of network and live conversation: a vital sign of the pulse of the people within those regions, driving the exhibition onward, revealing a third aspect to the term “heartland.”