Midwest by Midwest

Midwest by Midwest

The simplest way to locate the Midwest is to accept that its borders aren’t fixed on the map. Unlike New England, which is a culture of six identifiable states, or the South, which at the very least includes the states of the Confederacy, the Midwest shifts from gaze to gaze. That is why it persists in the American imagination, why it belongs to our idiom for talking about the way people live and have lived in this country, regardless of their address. As an adjective, Midwestern is inescapable because of the ways Americans move about while retaining the markings of place. Its elusiveness makes it interesting, and also necessary.

Taken generously, and that is the region’s proper measure, the Midwest extends west to Kansas and Nebraska, south to the border states along the Ohio and Missouri rivers, north to the Canadian border, and east to the industrial cities of Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Within that territory, the Midwest is both rural and urban, agrarian and industrial. Kansas and Iowa belong to the Midwest because they grow huge quantities of grain; Buffalo belongs because for generations it milled that grain. Separate the one from the other, and the place slips from view and becomes a series of clichés.

That it displays this inescapable connection between rural and urban, agrarian and industrial is the great strength of the exhibition of paintings and photographs mounted by the Columbus Museum of Art. Titled “Illusions of Eden: Visions of the American Heartland,” it will travel over the next year to Vienna and Budapest, as well as Madison, Wisconsin, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. An itinerary of Middle America and Mittel Europa makes for an interestingly trilingual catalog, a gentle corrective to those who might think the American Midwest embodies the provincial. In his essay for that catalog, Robert Stearns explains that the show was structured around “five motifs that reverberate within the region: journey (history and mobility), garden (land and topography), home (family and community), work (labor and industry) and word (knowledge and belief).”

If it’s hard to imagine any exhibition devoted to a sense of place without these five motifs or others much like them, that should be a warning that there’s a whole lot of mythmaking going on in this show. To judge from this exhibit, at least, the Midwest was not a place much represented by outsiders. Most of the paintings and photographs in “Illusions of Eden” were done between 1920 and 1940 by artists who were born or lived in the Midwest. It is, almost entirely, a show of work by natives looking at their home place. Midwest by Midwest.

As a kind of postmodern coda to the main body of the exhibit, there are pieces by four contemporary artists: Maya Lin, Kerry James Marshall, Malcolm Cochran, and Mary Lucier. Each has a connection to the region, either by birth or residency, but each also belongs to a larger contemporary culture of art that is avo...

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