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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

John Steuart Curry at Museum of Wisconsin Art

Putting ideals on canvas

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John Steuart Curry was a farm boy who became an artist, carrying with him a fondness for the rural earth and its people. He grew up in Kansas and then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris, among other places. He made a name for himself as a painter of the Great Plains, replete with dramas of farm life, tornadoes and baptisms performed in watering troughs. This fascinated his East Coast clientele for its sense of American exotica. “John Steuart Curry: At Home in Wisconsin” settles Curry into this state’s visual history like a favorite son.

Curry was one of the most important Regionalist artists of the 1930s. Like others, his pictures emphasized ordinary life with a distinctly Midwestern character, but his art is firmly built on metaphors that rise through rolling countrysides, the potentials of mind and body, and the toils of working the land.

Our Good Earth opens the exhibition. At face value, it is a guy in a windy field with two kids, but Curry’s compositional stagecraft makes this man a monumental figure, towering like he possesses a superhuman force belied by humble overalls and a dirty work shirt. He grips shafts of wheat in one hand, a small boy’s hand in the other. He is the archetype of farmer, protector and creator. Curry sweeps his paintbrush through the picture in a richly varied manner, layering translucent colors with a bravura that contains the influence of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

The idealistic nature of Curry’s work made him an apt choice for the first artist-in-residence at UW-Madison. This decade-long position was borne out of the fuel that stoked the Wisconsin Idea and Progressive politics in the early 20th century. Interestingly, he was not seated in the art department but instead in the College of Agriculture. Works such as The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research and Youth Helps Rebuild a World highlight the belief in art to inspire, to bridge the space between the ivory tower, the halls of government and the lives of ordinary people.

“John Steuart Curry: At Home in Wisconsin” continues through Sept. 14, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend.