"Americana" vs. America at the Soap Factory

Kenneth Steinbach, <i>The Machine in the Ghost</i>, detail

Kenneth Steinbach, The Machine in the Ghost, detail

The United States is a relatively young country, so we've always had a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to our history and culture. Sure, we have monuments erected, but compared to the Taj Mahal, the Sistine Chapel, the Parthenon, or any of the other ancient relics or artworks treasured in other nations, the U.S. just doesn't have the same scope of cultural heritage.

Perhaps it is that insecurity that brought rise to the idea of "Americana," of things that are supposedly quintessentially American: apple pie, works by Norman Rockwell, drive-in theaters, Ford pickup trucks. It's a term that implies a longing for identity, of nostalgia, and of a sentimental and posed idea of what our country is all about. It's also the title of the exhibition currently on view at the Soap Factory, curated by executive director Ben Heywood, which includes work by artists deconstructing the term, often using irony to question and prod this glossed-over version of American culture. 

The exhibition checks off a number of facets of quintessential Americana. There's Ellen Mueller's video juxtaposing cheerleaders with tenants of patriotism, Leif Heron's take on race-car driving, and even a new age-y project by Jan Estep where she interviews people and comes up with a poem on the spot. Recalling traditions of Tarot or psychic readings, these poems drip with sentimentality, but also quietly comment on the everyday struggles individuals face. 

One of the most compelling installations in the show comes from Shana Berger and Nathan Purath, who have reconstructed a one-room schoolhouse, fashioned after an actual building that was built in 1880, and filled it with the original furniture that belonged to the school. Projected inside the construction are videos of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which the artists filmed at the historic site in Lake Pleasant Township. 

It's possible that someone who's really into the Pledge of Allegiance and thinks it's a good thing for children to recite every morning at school might feel a sense of nostalgia for this piece. But for many, it's an uncomfortable reminder of our odd tradition of swearing loyalty to a flag, of all things, and to a country that's supposed to be all about liberty and justice (not to mention the whole God reference that was added in 1954). 

For Berger and Purath, they have constructed an insidious nostalgia, an ironic homage to a nationalistic tradition through the voices of these young children. The result is rather chilling.
Kenneth Steinbach has a similarly ironic approach in his work in The Machine in the Ghost. Here, he takes on the idea of American exceptionalism in a piece consisting of 2,600 pencil-shaped objects carved out of lumber taken from the grounds of Charles Lindbergh's house and museum in Little Falls, Minnesota. Jammed into the walls one by one, they create quite a sight spread out across a corner of one of the gallery rooms. You can just imagine Steinbach thrusting each of these hollow pencils mightily into the wall, achieving in that moment a sense of victory, of accomplishment -- of heroism, even. Poking fun at the idea of rugged individualism by demonstrating the uniformity and perhaps uselessness of a hasty act, Steinbach also creates a rather awe-inspiring whole. 

Meanwhile, Stephen Lang's American Borders series takes on the notion of borders, photographing various locations that divide one type of area or another, on which he's placed often colorful and incongruent objects. The borders Lang has selected aren't the ones you read about in the news that lead to war or refugees, but they allude to them and to other kinds of borders as well, such as time, identity, and relationships. Locations include borders between states, municipalities, a town, a reservation, at the edge of the Minnesota State Fair's Grandstand, at the edge of a home, and at the border of a science facility. Lang offers a meditation on what separates people from each other. The history of this country, after all, is a series of line drawings, and of claiming property under the system of capitalism. Lang doesn't make an overt political statement with his rather whimsical placing of Christmas-tree decorations, duct-tape covered yoga balls, and electric lawn mowers, but there's a bit of silent protest happening with the series, even by simply including the negative image of each photograph as an antithesis to each piece.

The strongest statement in the exhibit is also the simplest: Tetsuya Yamada's giant utility pole, teetering at the edge of crashing down on everything. Made of found objects, this giant work sums up the show as a whole. Here we have American infrastructure, civilization, and modernity, and it's on the brink of collapse. All we can do is wait for it to fall and get out of the way when it does. 

As a whole, "Americana" takes some large bites into ideas surrounding what is American culture, calling into question how narrow and uncomfortably patriotic that notion has become. Refreshingly snarky, it has lots to chew over for the cynics among us. The main thing the exhibit lacks when taking on this kind of topic are some additional perspectives from artists who are African American, Native, or other people of color. After all, the history of the idea of Americana has really been a history of whitewashing, of celebrating America's past while overlooking all of the people that make up that history. 


Through August 17
The Soap Factory
Hours Fourth of July weekend are 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday, July 3, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, July 6. (Open Thursdays through Sundays non-holiday weekends.)

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