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

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"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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