What statement did the 'American Gothic' knockoff make about public art?

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It's not a shocker, really, that the figures lifted from one of American art's most famous images and made enormous and three-dimensional have proved so popular.

There is something both surprising and pleasing about encountering God Bless America, J. Seward Johnson Jr.'s 25-foot-tall knockoff of "American Gothic," on its pedestal along Michigan Avenue, just north of the Chicago River.The farmer and his daughter look so much like the people in Grant Wood's painting it's almost surreal (without in any way representing surrealism). And yet, there they are, freed of the canvas at the Art Institute, looking as excited about their escape as they might about falling crop prices.

The man with the pitchfork and the woman with the prim collar gaze stoically across at the Wrigley Building, tourists dropped in from a time and place where pitchforks weren't just items from movie mob scenes.

Yet stand for a time, and watch people come upon the sculpture. You see, mostly, stops, smiles and, in short order, snapshots. People clamber over the suitcase that the sculptor has placed at the pair's feet -- an addition to the painting, which stops at the waist. They kneel on the sidewalk to try to photograph the statue heads amid the towering hotels and office buildings around them.

Critics can wag fingers at it -- and some do -- but God Bless America meets some of the fundamental tests of public art. It is noticed, it is appreciated, and, in many cases, it provokes reflection on what makes an art work original.

"Look how happy people are," said Emily Thacker, a retiree from Los Altos, Calif., pointing at the dozen or so engaged with the sculpture from various angles on a late afternoon in early autumn, a scene typical throughout the sculpture's residence, which began almost a year ago and has been extended to an unknown date past a planned mid-October departure.

"It brings art into their daily lives," she said, noting that she was there just after viewing the painting to which the sculpture, arguably, pays homage.

Thacker's traveling companion, Linda Canavan, is a docent at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. She called the Johnson work "very clever" and "eye-catching," and said that it was another in a long line of images, from the serious to the comic, that have been based on the Wood painting.

"The image is so iconic," she said, "... and it encourages people to go to the museum."

Indeed, since being put up in Pioneer Plaza for display last December, God Bless America has become, by most estimates, one of the top public-art attractions in a city that believes, even with a tight budget, in buying and displaying art and boasts several superstars of the genre. These include the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Calder's Flamingo in Federal Plaza and, surpassing everything in popularity these days, Cloud Gate, commonly known as The Bean, in Millennium Park.

"This one is pure photo-op potential," Elizabeth Kelley, director of the city's Public Art Program, said of God Bless America. "It's very clever. I never drive by it that someone isn't taking a picture of it."

But there's a rub. The Picasso, the Calder, Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, they've hit that public-art sweet spot of serving two audiences, cognoscenti and passers-by.

On Cloud Gate, for instance, Kelley said, "You would be hard pressed to find someone in the art world who doesn't think that it's a terrific object as art, and then it's beloved by the public as well.

"But that's a rare recipe for a large-scale work that has no sentimental or historic attachment to it."

The sculpture by Johnson -- a consumer products heir who made his art name crafting realistic statues of everyday people frozen in ordinary moments but who conceived God Bless America as part of a series based on other artists' images -- gets less glowing reviews.

"It's very successful," Kelley said. "I really like it. It is incredibly well crafted. It's high craftsmanship as a public art piece. It doesn't inspire me as a work of art the way Cloud Gate or the Picasso does. ... As an art historian, it's not my favorite genre where one artist appropriates another artist's imagery. But to everybody his own right."

Tony Tasset, an Oak Park sculptor who has works in the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art collections, as well as sculptures on display as public art in the city (see his "Snow Pile for Chicago" in the old Goldblatt's building on Chicago Avenue just west of Ashland), saw the Johnson piece under construction, he said.

There's a shop in New Jersey that does detailed enlargements in foam, and he was having a clay figure he'd made blown up at the same time as some of Johnson's famous-art appropriation pieces.

The sculptor said he finds God Bless America, in a sense, friendly.

"You compare that to the Picasso," said Tasset, who teaches sculpture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The Picasso is a challenge to the city: 'I'm going to show you the toughest, most extreme art and make it really big, and you're going to pay for it. And I'm going to compete with the architecture.'"

The Johnson piece, he said, "is more like a pat on the back. It's not a challenge to the city. It's celebrating what the city already is."

A throbbing question: What do they think about the Grant Wood appropriation at the Art Institute, where "American Gothic" is one of the prime attractions? We may never know because it is museum policy, a publicist there said, that its experts comment only on works that are specifically at the museum or in the museum's collection.

Instead, we'll hear from Zeller Realty Corp., the curator, after a fashion, of God Bless America. Zeller controls Pioneer Plaza, 401 N. Michigan Ave., and displays art there.

"It speaks to Midwesterners, especially the farmer aspect of it," said Melissa Farrell, an executive assistant at Zeller and the liaison to Johnson's The Sculpture Foundation, which owns the work.

Speaking on behalf of the artist, Sculpture Foundation executive Paula Stoeke said she was thrilled with the reception the piece has received in Chicago.

"The artist is definitely making a point about the outsourcing of American farmers with the suitcase at the feet," Farrell said. Yet even if people don't take that meaning from the suitcase and the title in combination -- no admirers interviewed for this story did -- "we like having pieces that start conversation," Farrell said. "We don't want something that just sort of sits there."

For an example, almost literally, of public art just sitting there, recall "Suite Home Chicago," the 2001 citywide exhibition of artist-made sofas. Seating that the public wasn't allowed to sit on frustrated many observers; others thought the exhibit derivative of 1999's similar "Cows on Parade."

Public-art director Kelley said Chicago's collection of pieces is among the largest held by any city.

She urges public-art lovers to visit the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in the far south suburbs.

Meantime, much more readily accessible to most, there is the downtown collection, among which God Bless America, for the time being, has claimed a prominent place.

"It's the hugeness," said Forrest Mills, a 28-year-old mason from Phoenix visiting his older brother, Darcy, a Chicagoan. "And they're so ominous-looking."

Mills looked around the plaza, quickly jumped atop the sculpture's suitcase, and sat there, smiling, as his brother snapped his photo.

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sajohnson@tribune.com

Hidden gem: Elizabeth Kelley is director of the city's Public Art Program. Among her favorite, perhaps overlooked, works in the city: two recently mounted "replicas of a storm cloud over Lake Michigan in titanium," by the Spanish-born Chicago artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building, 101 W. Congress Parkway.

View a photo gallery of public art in Chicago at chicagotribune.com/publicart.
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