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Culture and cornfields

When you think of the Midwest, what comes to mind?

For most people, the answer is probably farmers wearing overalls and cowboy hats, chewing tobacco and toiling the days away tending rows of crops. But then, most people would be wrong.

In an attempt to dispel the mythology of the Midwest, the Institute for Midwest Research is displaying The Bulletin of Findings of Culture, Society and Peoples of the Midwestern States, an art exhibit by James Ayers and Michael Clarke at USF’s Centre Gallery.

The exhibit – a collection of photography, painting and installation – is the result of extensive research conducted by the artists on the inhabitants of the Midwest while visiting the region. The use of different media functions as a means of drawing attention to the ways in which people build ideas and notions about unknown people and places, and how ridiculous and nonsensical these ideas and notions can be.

In “Self-Portraits as Midwesterner,” a series of nine cyanotype photographs, Clarke adopts the costumes and manner of a native Midwesterner in an attempt to discover the essence of the Midwestern people. Similarities can be drawn between these pieces and Richard Avedon’s “In the American West,” a series of portraits of inhabitants of the West, such as drifters, miners and cowboys.

Ayers further explores the culture and characters of the Midwest in a series of untitled oil paintings. These works, all open narratives, invite the viewers to construct their own stories regarding the Midwest through the use of subject matter ranging from leashed roosters and rainbows to slabs of meat hanging from tree branches.

The relationship between these visual images and the Midwest is unclear, causing viewers to question their own cultural expectations. After all, sunbathing with meat has as much to do with the Midwest as girls in gingham dresses with dogs named “Toto.”

Speaking of gingham, the exhibit contains an untitled “installation” that consists of different colored paint swatches attached to the corner of a wall, arranged in a gingham (or checkerboard) pattern and scattered across the floor. The colors used are typical of those usually associated with the Midwest, such as varying shades of orange and red. Viewers are invited to remove paint swatches from the floor and take them home – a process also found in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Thus, the installation is not only decorative, but interactive as well.

Although one could argue that the exhibit is more anthropological research than artistic endeavor, it should be kept in mind that things are not what they seem. Besides questioning the ways in which myths and stereotypes are invented and perpetuated, viewers should also question the means by which importance and relevance are added to these beliefs.