In 2008, I founded the Inland Visual Studies Center at Bradley University. The Center’s mission draws attention to the significance of Illinois and the Midwest as a critical hub of American art that has been under-identified in the broader art culture. With that in mind, I’ll be discussing American visual narratives that originated from Illinois and the Midwest as they are re-presented today. I’m most interested in the production of art that asserts rural as well as urban themes and practices. The idea of rural America, or for that matter suburbia, being a place of cultural progress has been too long disregarded, not just in contemporary art, but in the dichotomous reporting of popular media, with their misleading tropes such as “rural vs. urban,” and “red state/blue state.” Nonetheless, advanced inland art production is active, and it perceptively influences a broader discussion on our nation’s cultural identity.

One consequence of the globalist turn in contemporary art, economics and culture in general is that regions like the American Midwest have been derided as “flyover zones.” While, globalist approaches to culture have made us more conscious of previously overlooked parts of the planet, for the most part it’s business capitals that have all the attention. The contemporary art of these cities often tends to validate our preconceptions about their visual heritage, but more often it reflects the aesthetics driving New York’s rather imperialist art regime. International art markets thrive by trading with artists and galleries who are stylistically similar to Western sensibilities rather than what is authentic to more remote and complex histories. How does this affect us in the Midwest? Cultural capitals in the U.S., almost exclusively located on the East and West coast, represent many more replicas of such “globalized” work than art stemming from a country’s geographic center and this applies in spades to art of the inland United States.

The circumvention of unconventional artwork in a discipline that once thrived on representing and critiquing the avant-garde, the exceptional and the outsider raises the question — what would happen if art markets, journals and academic research focused on progressive art practice and/or outstanding visual narratives in the Midwest — the ones that have been buried in our official histories? If it were financially expedient, would we now have a current body of knowledge about inland culture as significant as the early 20th century where a corridor between the Gulf and the Great Lakes established modern American architecture and gave birth to jazz? How would practices like printmaking, public sculpture, graphic design and industrial design, to name a few critical Midwest traditions that helped define the cultural identity of the U.S., have resonated if they were continually celebrated in more than just a few academic disciplines? If the education of artists is truly about the depth and the breadth of representation, then why don’t we respond more positively to visual legacies of the nation’s other creative practices and other cultural zones?

Mainstream contemporary art thrives on the notion that art of the metropolis is the only location of real culture, just as the original modernists did at the turn of the 20th century. Art as a discipline clings to a perception that inland art is hopelessly derivative. Coastal art production, however, largely reflects the dominant life in its vicinity as does all art. On the coasts, it’s the business of culture and the entertainment industry. Inland culture, on the other hand, reflects everything else. Here we have unique visual narratives that connect artists to their location via the manufacturer, aviator, builder, farmer, academic, industrial designer and politician. That, along with the landscape and architecture, make up who we are.

The common sense understanding that “local precedes global” resists the shopworn idea of progressive art being universal and transcending place. I prefer to look closely at inland culture in a more anthropological vein where artists talk back to their interrogators, the result being a collaborative construction of culture. Then you have an antidote to a diet of hybrid art styles that pose as global or pluralist. I’m not interested in the idea of art as aesthetic stimulant, where the public settles for a flavor of the day, one that collectively masks places of origin and history. I’ll select artworks and subjects guided by the principals of the Inland Center and will evaluate them from the context of Midwestern visual narratives. That doesn’t mean revering a nostalgic view of regionalism or ignoring significant ideas that stem from other parts of the country. My arguments will be comparative and show that current Midwestern art is vivid, intelligent and as progressive as any other semi-independent cultural zone. I’ll discuss and apply criteria from resident artists, as well as compute how the day-to-day experience of living and working in Illinois influences the meaning of our visual culture.

I also have plans for a book on a handful of artists and designers from the region as well as from Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. I will submit occasional excerpts. I’ll discuss some local shows or events here in Peoria, maybe editorialize a bit, and explore subjects that I enjoy and are hopefully relevant to the “Word’s” readers.

Paul Krainak is professor of painting and director of the Inland Visual Studies Center at Bradley University.

Paul Krainak

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