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CLOSE UP: HATCHET JOB

Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, oil on canvas, 38 3/8 × 50 1/8".

Pa, (said George very seriously) do I ever tell lies?”
—Parson Weems

NORM MACDONALD tells a joke during his 2017 Netflix stand-up special in which he attempts to unravel one of America’s most cherished fake-news stories. That would be Parson Weems’s allegorical sketch of the country’s first president, a tale of a little boy hacking away at a perfectly good cherry tree for what would seem to be no reason other than the bratty fun of it, a little boy who nevertheless grew up to assume iconic, mythological status the world over. Weems invented this story out of thin air in 1806 as a way of instructing readers on young George Washington’s preternatural virtues, kept wholly intact over a career spent in military, revolutionary, and executive service.

But then you think about it a little bit, right? Imagine if you drove home to your house, right? And you get there and you go, “Hey what the fuck happened to the cherry tree? Did somebody chop it down or something?” And then you go inside and there’s your child with an ax. So you go, “What happened to the cherry tree?” And then he goes, “I chopped down the cherry tree, I cannot tell a lie.” And you go, “OK, the first part of what you said bothers me a lot. The second part scares the fuck out of me.”

Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution, 1932, oil on Masonite, 20 × 40".

Grant Wood happened on this tale for the subject of a painting he completed in 1939. Parson Weems’ Fable is included in a retrospective organized by Barbara Haskell with Sarah Humphreville at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York this month. Truly an ensemble cast, five figures inhabit the scene: George; his father, Augustine; two unidentified slaves; and Weems himself. The work is a marvel of psychological insight and historiographical doublespeak. Its compositional ingenuity blows my mind. I don’t care if this painting, like all works by Wood, forwent his era’s demands for modernism. Wood had altogether weirder, more singular ambitions than any of his modernist counterparts.

Wood’s entire approach here zeros in on the deceitfulness inherent in the myth he has illustrated, doubling down on said deceit by way of a complex formal drama amounting to capriccio, a play-within-a-play on canvas portraying liars performing the performance of not telling lies. What’s more, and not for nothing, the opportunity to closely consider this painting could not have arrived at a more desperately stupid time to be alive in this country.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaverboard, 30 3/4 × 25 3/4".

THE PICTURE’S FIELD OF PLAY starts with the Reverend Weems standing to the right, calmly making direct eye contact with viewers. His right hand draws a red curtain behind him to present a fabulous drama transpiring on the Washington-family plantation in idyllic Virginia, situated in colonial times on the rolling hills above the Rappahannock River. Weems’s other hand points beyond the curtain, toward a conflict between father and son taking place on the lawn. Weems, being the author of this historical fiction, appears as an absurdly patrician orator. Wood styles the storyteller with a republican, nearly philosophical virtue, giving him such a serious bearing that we might be convinced to accept him as we see him, pulling the curtain back on a heretofore hidden moment of truth, albeit a ridiculous one. His self-conscious half-smirk as well as the underhandedness of his twisted, backhanded pose may give him away, however. Not even he can believe what he’s showing us.

Wood had weirder, more singular ambitions than any of his modernist counterparts.

We see Augustine holding up the felled cherry tree, itself of preposterous topiary design. An American settler-gentleman in the chic costume of an English colonial subject—red tailcoat, wig, and tricorn hat—he angrily admonishes his son with controlled pleading, seeming to ask his young charge, “Why have you done this?”

Grant Wood, Spring in Town, 1941, oil on wood, 26 × 24 1/2".

Apart from the daytime sunlight, the scene appears lit as if by a single footlight slightly left of center stage, a triangular beam that extends beyond the players to also hit their home and property, including a pair of African slaves picking cherries in the distant background. The sharply angled redbrick house cuts into the grassy landscape with hard-edge severity, its geometry echoing the razor-sharp violence inflicted on Augustine’s tree out front. More subtly, the house underscores the violence inherent to the plot on which it sits, predicated, like all American wealth and Southern gentility, on the practice of chattel slavery as well as the forced expulsion of native peoples from their land. Another, subtler layer of violence arrives when one learns that the house pictured here was modeled after Wood’s residence in Iowa City, where in fact the picture was painted, suggesting that the angry conflict between father and son was one with which the artist closely identified.

Answering Augustine and owning up to his little crime against nature, young George appears as his future adult self but in miniature, rendered with a copy of the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait placed like a mask onto his youthful frame. Chastened but not one to be less than brave, little George stands there, much shorter than his father yet fully erect, an adolescent actor wearing baby-blue tights. He holds his ax in one hand while proudly pointing to the tool with the other. As such, he mirrors Weems’s more immediate directorial hand gesture in the foreground. This perverse man-boy hybrid then also appears as a mirror image of his own father standing there looking down on him, and, perhaps, as a mirror imago of the founding father he is destined to one day become.

Grant Wood, Boy Milking Cow, 1932, oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 71 1/4 × 63 1/2".

As a child, Wood suffered difficult relations with his father, Maryville Wood, who died when the artist was only ten years old. (Incidentally, Augustine also died early, when George was eleven.) An Iowa farmer, the elder Wood was taciturn and strict, with zero tolerance for behaviors unbecoming of rural Christian life. He expected hard work from all of his four children but took special umbrage at the budding artistic interests of his effeminate young son. He discouraged the boy’s early talents for drawing and make-believe, locking him up in the basement or else whipping him for whatever silly infractions he may have committed. (Could the cherry-tree trunk seen in Augustine’s hand also resemble a rather large switch?) After the old man’s sudden departure, Wood remained haunted by his death for the rest of his life. By the time the artist had become famous for painting American Gothic, 1930—an immediately celebrated (and much parodied) icon of good, humble heartland stock, a picture devised to depict a farmer and his spinster daughter but commonly mistaken for a portrait of a prudish husband and wife—Grant had begun to take liberties with facets of his childhood family life, as if they were on par with the founding of America itself. This seems to have been his way of satisfying a congenital flair for histrionic self-styling, while also attempting to measure up to the life of his namesake, Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general and eighteenth president of the United States.

Grant purposefully misleads his audience because lies are disguises and disguises are illusions and illusions are magical.

R. Tripp Evans includes a fascinating analysis of Parson Weems’ Fable in his wonderful, richly detailed 2010 biography, Grant Wood: A Life, an analysis centering on a certain kind of castration anxiety the artist likely related to his father. It seems the artist harbored these anxieties within his private psychology but then grafted them onto Weems’s patriotic mythology, elevating personal autobiography to historical fiction: “Washington has destroyed his father’s tree––an element not only traditionally associated with phallic power, but also specifically linked to Maryville himself (the connection between ‘Wood’ and ‘wood’ is unavoidable here). . . . Severed and oddly flaccid, the bleeding tree and its dangling fruit will soon wither and die.” The story of Wood’s life became a twist on the history of the country.

Grant Wood, Saturday Night Bath, 1937, charcoal on paper, 24 × 26 7/8".

THE LAST TIME the Whitney mounted a Wood retrospective, in 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Thomas Lawson reviewed the show for this magazine, and I’m afraid he did not like it:

This exhibition came as a timely reminder of the frequency with which the recurring attack on advanced art is led by a call for localism dressed in the safely assimilated style of an earlier avant-garde. . . . For what is wrong with so much of his work is not that it portrays rural life, but that it lies about it, disguises the relentless brutality of working the land.

Fair enough, but compared with what we’re living through now, I find Wood’s quaint falsifications of American history, blended as they are with personally distorted reflections on his own dark past, to be completely charming (and that’s without getting into details of the queer aspects apparent in his work, which may help us understand his appreciation for drag, or for playing dress up with the facts). Even if his art is willfully ignorant of the avant-garde, it also lacks the pernicious cynicism that Lawson found worthy of chastisement. The work is simply too much fun for that. Wood’s paintings aim instead for the catharsis achieved in theater, like stage productions featuring lavish sets, campy costumes, affected dialogue, and over-the-top action. He isn’t purposefully misleading his constituents like some clueless, bad-faith operator, cursing his viewers into continued stupor as they live out their lives toiling the land under relentless brutality. He purposefully misleads his audience because lies are disguises and disguises are illusions and illusions are magical.

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987, offset lithograph, 23 1/2 × 37 1/2".

In America, however, relentless brutality is the norm. Duly noted. So too are politicians who lie to Americans about the very nature of America. Both truths are more visible now to the naked eye than in an awfully long time. With partisan rancor running rampant, daily falsehoods from the White House, racist violence, widespread sexual abuse, crazed lone gunmen, police misconduct, mass incarceration, spotty housing and infrastructure, health-care crises, climate-change disasters, and the wealth-inequality gap growing ever larger, national discontent has calcified under Donald Trump’s campaign rule. In light of all that, Wood’s version of the country is a welcome distraction, arriving again to the Whitney like a pleasant whiff of cherry-scented air.

But Wood is more than just a distraction! Of which we already have plenty! He takes a fable about lying and spins that yarn even further and more imaginatively out of control to reveal something to himself or to us, something esoteric and bizarre about the difficult relationships between fathers and sons, and how that might determine the deep-seated unease felt whenever citizens elect presidents. Too many of us were born to hate our dads, regardless of how often we have cause to. How could we look at someone like Washington, Reagan, or Trump and not start feeling Oedipal rage? That Wood can handle the rage with coy brightness, humor, and pictorial smarts . . . I’m tempted to call it piss-elegant but with only half as much piss.

Barron Trump during Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day parade, Washington, DC, January 20, 2017. Photo: Bryan Thomas/New York Times/Redux.

ALMOST IMMEDIATELY following Trump’s election, the former reality-TV star / art critic Jerry Saltz declared that our soon-to-be president—no matter how vulgar, untrustworthy, and despicable he may have seemed at the time—would at least be good for inspiring some new contemporary art. He made this claim under an image of Reagan from 1987 created by the artist Donald Moffett in response to the aids crisis then brutalizing the country and yet fully ignored by our federal government. However oddly uncomfortable and insulting Saltz’s argument about art’s correlation to bad politics may have been, however soaked in schadenfreude, he unintentionally prefigured another pretty good quote about art, given to the New York Times on Inauguration Day by Alex Jones, the conservative radio host and friend to the president: “If he delivers, they are going to build a statue for Donald Trump that’s bigger and more impressive than the one they did for Lincoln at the memorial.” Oh my God, can you even imagine?

That quote ran in a story that included a photograph of the President’s kid Barron, another presidential son whose face can’t tell lies, looking Bored as Hell while riding around DC in a bulletproof limousine. “The election left many feeling alienated, alone, in shapeless psychic pain. But in fact this foul, broken, alien place is a very old locus of art,” reported Saltz.

Maybe let’s call it a draw, guys. After all, the most compelling political art under Trump so far hasn’t even been art, it’s been antiart—the defacement, destruction, or sanctioned removal of racist Confederate war statues in cities across the South, cut down like so many cherry trees. This foul, broken, alien locus—actually just typical American society—has finally catalyzed a delicious comeuppance. And now we get to go look at Wood’s funny paintings of people pretending to be decent Americans. Perhaps we’ll feel moved to continue making the art to which we’ve always felt inclined, giving shape to our psychic pain, as it were—or not, if we don’t feel like making art about pain. Either way, we can muster the courage to sally forth with eccentric panache. And then one day in the future when this lousy administration is ancient history, assuming enough of us survive, we can all get together and have a good laugh about it.

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through June 10.

Sam McKinniss is an artist based in New York.