Made for Selfie and Scale: Seward Johnson in Saginaw

Reviewer: Benjamin Champagne

Venue: Riverfront Saginaw

We love when the museum meets the everyday. Art out and about, in the real world. Art that is happening right in the actual world we are all taking selfies in.

The art world has erected barriers over time. (Pronounced without the R) Art isn’t for the common plebe, or so it goes. There is an inkling in society that to properly enjoy art one must be educated in art. Yet, to enjoy the Trompe l’Oeil of Seward Johnson requires just a little childlike will. When the pieces are scattered throughout the city like a scavenger hunt, it produces childlike wonder in all of us.

Most people know The Treachery of Images by Magritte. An image of a pipe with a script that says “this is not a pipe”. How confusing? What is he trying to pull? Rene is illustrating that what the observer is looking at is not a pipe, but an image of a pipe. Okay, Magritte, big whoop. We know that! What kinda stuff you tryna pull?!

Seward Johnson is accomplishing a different type of confusion, a trick of the eye, but without any lofty and confusing discourse. In the first instance of seeing, many observers report being duped into thinking it is a real person. What some critics have described as kitsch, we can also call familiar. The subject matter is so close to our knowledge of the world that it tricks us into thinking it’s the real thing.

But that isn’t the case with the monumental arriving in Saginaw in the final week of June. There is no chance to confuse this for the real thing. Seward Johnson’s God Bless America is a recreation of American Gothic by Grant Wood. Johnson made a number of monumental sculptures around 25 feet tall. Where the realism of his sculptures wows the audience, the sheer scale of these pieces leave the viewer in amazement. The rural subject matter has been adjusted slightly with the addition of a suitcase suggesting traveling. Which is rather quaint in itself. That the Iowan Father and Daughter depicted wouldn’t quite be comfortable being themselves in today’s day and age. There needs to be an air of experience and education about them.

These bucolic images are perfect installations for Saginaw, MI. Each piece rests in the wake of the fascination of a wax museum, but stands tall and hard like working class. They fit in nicely beside The Last Whistle (Ken Newman) which was brought to Saginaw a few years back and has rested at the Saginaw Art Museum ever since. A celebration of the working class.

The realism and subject matter of Johnson is light and easy. A Florida counterpart to Johnson, Duane Hanson dabbled in much the same art, but was dubbed photorealistic. This work is so real, it is almost unreal. Johnson leaves some of the skin tones in bronze. Johnson chooses subject matter that doesn’t subvert or patronize our notions of the working class. They are simple images. Men playing chess. People throwing frisbees. Hanson let the burdens of life show through, where Johnson tucked them away.

In Hanson, we see pain in the working class. Queenie II (1988) carries the weight of what it is to be a janitor in the land of the free, right inside the fiberglass cast. The land where the teacher asks Johnny what he wants to be when he grows up. Who answers custodian? Hanson’s work is difficult. Challenging. In short, not as much fun. Maybe still a celebration, but different certainly.

All of these amazing works, spread throughout the city are begging to become part of America’s #1 hobby: taking a selfie. There is a new intimacy in the art world. Seeing the work, the piece and letting the eyes of the piece, look right into the camera lens. To be shared. The context of each piece is considered anew. What does it mean to see the man at the corner of Hamilton and Court disposing of trash? How is this different from the experience of seeing it with a white wall behind it? The committee that placed the pieces took great care to place each piece in conjuring situations. These beg for interaction.

Art that can be interacted with is of high value and importance in today’s society. Because we live tailored existences now, via our preferences and clicks on social media, our delivery of goods to our doors, our ability to inoculate ourselves in a bubble of our favorite opinions, we need art that comes to us. Art that allows us to take a silly photo. A piece that can be seen from our moving vehicle. A piece 25 feet tall and representing one of the most famous paintings of all time. Something undeniable and above the clamor. Johnson accomplishes this.

Enjoy God Bless America this summer. Allow it to inspire you. It is truly something to have a work of such scale to be in the city this year. Gordon Parks couldn’t have made his version of American Gothic, Washington D.C. (an important precursor to the upcoming civil rights movement) unless inspired by the original. And perhaps natives to Saginaw could pay homage in their own ways.

There are certainly more complex installation pieces in the world. There is art making more specific political statements. Art that speaks to a group in a whisper. But this summer in Saginaw, MI we have loud, bronze celebrations of what it is to be normal. A hot dog vendor, strolling professor, two men playing chess, the lady you know from the church bake sale. 2020 has been anything but normal so far and this is precisely what the atelier ordered.

Share this Review