Art and the American Midwest

Being based in Nottingham, we have a particular interest in what it means to be located in the middle of the country. Neither north nor south, located the same distance from London as from Middlesborough, Nottingham’s East Midlands position could be seen to inspire particular cultural conditions. A similar notion is driving a new research project in the Department of Art History. Led by Dr Mark Rawlinson and myself, it concerns not the East Midlands, but another in-between, and often overlooked, place: the American Midwest.

Nebraska. Photo: pstao1(CC license)

Nebraska. Photo: pstao1(CC license)

The project explores the ways in which the cultural, economic, geographic and topographic specificity of the American Midwest is reflected in art and visual culture, in order to find out what the Midwest represents in the American cultural imaginary. As such, it brings together my interest in the place of regional identity in American modern and contemporary art, and Mark’s research into visualising the American landscape. We’re interested in art made in Midwest states (there are twelve of them, according to the US Census Bureau) and in art made by Midwestern artists, of course. But we are also keen to discover how the Midwest has been visualised, represented and staged in art and visual culture more broadly, and to think about how that might change our understanding of American art and cultural identity.

Quite a bit of art historical attention has recently been paid to artists working on the West Coast (particularly California), and that scholarship has expanded our view of what American art was and is. But the Midwest remains a neglected topic in art history. It usually appears in books as the place left behind by young artists who moved to New York or Los Angeles. But there is much more to it, of course, and the topic seems ripe for re-evaulation.

Michigan Central Station. Photo: wellohorld on Flickr (CC license)

Michigan Central Station. Photo: wellohorld on Flickr (CC license)

Our thinking about this project has been helped this term by the presence in the department of Fulbright Fellow Professor Joni Kinsey, who is visiting Nottingham from the University of Iowa, and whose research focuses on the history and theory of landscape painting, print culture, and the art of the American West and Midwest. In April we will welcome two International Fellows to Nottingham, both of whom are visiting us from US universities, and both of whom work on the Midwest in art and culture. Dr Emily C. Burns (Auburn University) researches French interpretations of the American Midwest and Far West in the first decades of the twentieth century, in particular through postcard images of plains and mountain landscapes, visual cultures, and their respective peoples. Dr Corey Dzenko (University of North Carolina Greensboro) will be working on contemporary representations of the Midwest, focusing on The Ohio Project (1999), part of the South Korean-born, New York-based artist Nikki S. Lee’s Projects (1997-2001). We’re anticipating some interesting workshops and reading groups, and lots of productive conversations!

Future plans include a conference on Art and the American Midwest, which we’ll organise with the help of the Nottingham Institute for Research in Visual Culture (NIRVC). Watch this space…

Dr Lucy Bradnock (Lecturer, Art History)

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