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Wood Goths Invade Pioneer Court; Get Snowed.






 -by Lynn Becker

[January 12, 2009] - How do you liven up what should be one of Chicago's great public plazas? And what about the moose?

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


God Bless America, sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, in front of the Equitable Building, Pioneer Court, Chicago
For the economic meltdown, there was King Lear, J. Seward Johnson's soaring sculpture glowering down on the pretensions of men to control their own destinies.

Now, just in time for the new austerity, Lear has headed south to winter in Key West, and his place on Michigan Avenue's Pioneer Court has been taken over by God Bless America, Johnson's 25 foot tall three-dimensionzing of of Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic, which continues in residence at the Art Institute, also off of Michigan Avenue, about a half mile to the south.

To Sam Zell and the employees of the imploding Tribune Company, the pair must appear as chilling ghosts-of-Christmas-to-come harbingers as they dominant the view out of the south windows of Trib Tower and its annex.
God Bless America,sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, on Pioneer Court in front of Tribune Tower, Chicago
According to the AIC website, the man who served as the model for the farmer was actually a dentist, whose business from prospective root canal patients surely must have taken a hit by the image of him standing impassively with a pitchfork in his drill hand. The plain looking woman at his side, usually misidentified as his wife, was intended to represent his unmarried daughter, and was, in real life, his sister. (Thank God there were no children.)

Johnson is known for his life-like bronze sculptures of people engaged in day-to-day activities, such as the metallic guy hailing a taxi in front of the Four Seasons Hotel. Double-Check, his 1982 sculpture in lower Manhattan's Liberty Park of a businessman checking the contents of his briefcase, became a September 11 icon after it survived the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Covered in dust and surrounded by debris, it became a makeshift memorial gathering mementos of grief and mourning.

More recently, Johnson has taken to creating sculptural renderings of famous paintings such as Manet's Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe, Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Rousseau's The Dream. They're on display at Hamilton, New Jersey's Grounds for Sculpture, a 35-acre artpark created in 1992 by Johnson, of the wealthy Johnson & Johnson's Johnsons, on the site of the former New Jersey fairgrounds. It now has a collection of over 240 works from a broad roster of artists that includes Anthony Caro, George Segal and Magdalena Abakanowicz, sculptor of Agora at the southern tip of Grant Park.

Like that of Jeff Koons, Johnson's work straddles the edge between art and kitsch. There's no doubt, however, that it's livened up the sprawling Pioneer Court plaza, which, despite being rebuilt a number of years ago with additional landscaping, fountains, and Jack Brickhouse, remains an unfocused expanse where a great civic gathering place should be. With all the hyper-activity around this year's centennial celebration of the publication of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, rethinking this gateway to North Michigan avenue should be given a prime place on the agenda. For now, as a counterpoint to Pioneer Court's almost complete absence of presence or personality, Seward's God Bless America brings a welcome touch of humor.

If you're indifferent to narrative coherence and immune to motion sickness, check out this YouTube video featuring Johnson at the dedication of the sculpture as part of an exhibition of his work at the Key West Museum of Art in January of 2008.

A year later, his Gothic pair must be having doubts about the rewards of simple virtueGod Bless America, sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, Key West, Florida and a hardscrabble lifestyle as they find themselves sliced apart just north of the naughty bits, yanked from their balmy Florida abode, shipped, reassembled, and plopped down in the midst of a harsh Chicago winter, with nary an overcoat, hat or galosh to shield them from the blowing snow and toe-freezing slush.
God Bless America, sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, Pioneer Court, Chicago
Meanwhile, John Kearney's moose, still exiled to the plaza's fringes, looks on with sullen passivity as he plots the expunging of the interlopers and his triumphant return to center stage.
Moose, sculpture by John Kearney, comtemplates God Bless America, sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, on Pioneer Court, Chicago

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© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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