Part 3 – Assignment 3: Re-appropriating Images – Notes 3

  • Now reflect on your chosen re-appropriated image. Why was it produced, how has it been shown to audiences and what do you think their interpretations are?

After looking at many reimagined and reappropriated versions of American Gothic, I have chosen one of my original two choices – the 1994 cover of TIme magazine, which was painted by artist Bryan Leister.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere to read the full article that this piece was created for – TIME only show the first paragraph on their website which can be read below:

If Everyone Is Hip . . . Is Anyone Hip?

Once an outsider’s rejection of the mainstream, the attitude has become mall friendly and marketed as everyone’s mode of the moment.
Even if it’s hard to take pity on people who expect to pocket several million dollars, you have to admit the organizers of Woodstock ’94 have a thankless job. In more ways than one, the first Woodstock was an impossible act to follow. By bringing together 400,000 people who forever-after thought of themselves as inspired outsiders present at the creation, the concert became a high-water mark of a tendency that had been building in American culture for decades. In the years right after World War II, there emerged from the bohemias of San Francisco, New York City and a few…
Despite not having the full article, the gist of it can be worked out from quotes in other places (such in Wes Hill’s ‘A Hipster Aesthetic‘).
‘Marketplace Appropriation of the Hipster
On August 8, 1994, the cover story of Time made declarations like “Everybody’s hip” and “Hipness is bigger than General Motors” (Lacayo 1994, 48). Suddenly, a main-stream cultural authority was making a connection between counter cultural consumerism and the largely dormant hipster myth. The article nostalgically celebrated the Beat Generation as the embodiment of the hipster movements’ iconoclastic, anticonformist spirit; it criticized the commercial mainstreaming of hipness by baby boomer consumers who seek to defy their mortality; and it posed the question that would become central in subsequent cultural dialogues about hipness: “If everyone is hip . . . is anyone hip?”
I can’t find anything about why Bryan Leister chose American Gothic as the starting point for the TIME cover, nor about sales figures for this particular issue. I also can’t find any mentions of how the cover and article were received at the time, so I can only make assumptions.
As already discussed, American Gothic is a very famous and recognisable image, and Leister has kept many of the features of the original in his remake. Viewers who had ever seen Wood’s painting would almost certainly recognise that it is the inspiration for the cover.
  • Make a comparison between the two images. You may want to place the two versions side by side and annotate the visual similarities, differences and other comparisons you make.

Firstly, here is an annotation of the two works and their similarities/differences:

Although I don’t know the artist’s take on why he chose to use American gothic, it seems like a logical choice.

The original depicted a typical farming family who live in a modest house in a modest area of Iowa. They are dressed traditionally, perhaps they could even be said to look old-fashioned. They are certainly a far cry from the gangsters and glamorous night club singers who frequented Chicago at that time.

Leister’s 1994 remake has kept the house and barn, but added some modern elements. He has removed the patterned curtains in the top window, added a few dalmation dogs to the porch, and parked a red family car outside.

The couple now sport all the ‘trendy’ paraphanalia of the mid-90s; she has a short, striking hair cut with numerous earrings lining her lobe. He also has a hoop in one ear, as well as the distinctive smokey round sunglasses popularised by Britpop bands in the UK. His collarless shirt remains, but it is now unbuttoned and paired with a tan waistcoat and trousers. Her patterned apron has morphed into a strappy slip dress, and she carries a rollerblade in her tattooed arm. Instead of a fist clenched around a pitchfork, the man now clutches something else in his grip. I actually can’t make out what it is. It looks a bit like a laptop, and some of the first ‘thin’ laptops did come out in 1994, so it could possibly be an Apple PowerBook 520 (1994) which is on PC World’s list of The 10 Most Important Laptops of All Time, and a side view can be seen below:

  • How does the new work make reference to the old? Does it maintain, subvert or alter the original message in any way and, if so, how does this take place visually?

Despite no one really knowing for sure what Wood’s intention was with the original – was it a serious study of Iowa local, or was it a satire on their stoic old-fashioned values – it can definitely be seen as capturing the spirit of the type of people who inhabited small town midwest America in the early 20th century. They dress traditionally, work hard, and live a modest, no-frills lifestyle. In contrast, the new work depicts the complete opposite, even though it shows the same faces, stood in the same positions, and in the same location. This new couple is purposely pictured as being dressed in the most popular fashions of the day, sporting trendy earrings, tattoos and hair, and carrying items that were very much on trend in 1994 – rollerblades and a brand new Apple laptop. While some people thought the original American Gothic was a satirical view of small town American farmers, the new version could be looked upon as a satirical view of modern American surburbanites. Indeed, the headline ‘Everybody’s Hip (And That’s Not Cool), coupled with the overly-modern cover image, suggests the contents of the article are going to be about how ‘hipness’ has become mainstream.

An extract of the article quoted in Wes Hill’s work  suggests that the aforementioned hipness is actually a marketing ploy to make it ‘a special condition almost everyone seems to aspire to’. See also

  • Think about the visual elements of the two items. How is image, composition, typography, visual narrative or any other element used to construct meaning?

The compostion in both is the same, the couple stand in front of a house and barn, with trees in the background, but the new version feels far less severe. Side by side, you can see that the original is muted, dull and darker in colour and atmosphere, but it is somewhat calming. There is a lot of black that stands out, and is long associated in western culture with death and mourning. It has  a sense of power and intimidation in this work, like a black wall across the image that no one may cross. In comparison, the colours in the new version are brighter and happier, despite the couple’s same sour expressions. In addition, the bigger line of the title is presented in a bright and energizing yellow. It grabs attention and gives a sunny and cheerful vibe. The white of the bracketed title, and the shirts of the couple, give off a clean and modern feeling, compared to the darkness in the foreground of Wood’s version.

Added to the protective wall of black, the man wielding the pitchfork in  Wood’s version feels a lot like he is protecting his home, and/or his wife/daughter (depending on your opinion of the who the woman is). The pitchfork is actually mirrored somewhat in the pattern on the man’s overalls, and the vertical lines of the fork, shirt, house and barn could be seen as a show of strength, or even the bars of a cage or prison. Whichever way you look at it, the original has a sense of ‘keep out’ about it. In contrast, Leister has softened and spaced out the vertical lines on the house and barn, and removed the pitchfork barrier, giving the house a friendlier atmosphere.

  • Try and make connections between how the original and the re-appropriated
    image relate to one another both in terms of their visual construction and their
    context. This might lead to thoughts about wider cultural and social change, as well as differences in the use of visual communication and media at different times.

The visual connections between the two images are clear, but the connection in their context is less so. If we are to trust Wood’s comments in this letter to Mrs Sudduth, he merely wanted to produce a ‘warts-n-all’ piece of art depicting the type of local people he was familiar with having grown up in Iowa. He wanted to enter it into a competition, and it’s unlikely he could have ever imagined the popularity that would surround the painting nearly a century later. Brian Leister’s piece was produced as a commission to go with an article on the subject of ‘hipness’, and his couple are about as far away in appearance and culture from Wood’s as you can get. In one sense, the are diametrically opposed – the traditional, old-fashioned, 1930s farmers vs the trendy 1990s townsfolk, but nothing has changed in their situations – neither of the modern characters are smiling, both women are looking off into the distance, possibly wishing they were somewhere else. Wood’s couple are hanging on to their traditions in a world that’s beginning to change, whereas, Leister’s couple are trying to keep up with the trends in a world that is changing too rapidly, and in trying to be seen as ‘hip’, are actually just like everybody else.

In a wider cultural sense, the number of farms and rural in American has been dropping steadily since Grant Wood produced American Gothic from between 6 and 7 million in 1930, to around 2 million in 2014. Having said that, the income of farmers has gone from being well below the income of a regular household, to actually being above average in recent years. Whereas farmers and rural workers were often poor and seen as living simple lives 100 years ago, nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish a farm family from anyone else nowadays. As for the differences in the use of visual communication and media at different times, back in 1930, Grant Wood’s painting was publicised in newspapers across the country, and readers identified with it as a symbol of hard-working, solid Americans. Until the invention of the internet, the spread of the work, it’s interpretations, and it’s many parodies, would have continued to be via print media like newspapers, magazines, books, greetings cards, and possibly televised art shows or news segments as that technology became more widely available. Even in 1994, the internet was mainly being used by professionals, and the home computer was just starting to become more common, so media and visual communications were still mainly focused on print based items, along with TV and film. In 2019, it was estimated that nearly 60% of the world’s population have access to the internet, and in North America and Europe, it’s nearing 90%. It’s no surprise then, that popular art work such as American gothic continues to be re-imagined, re-appropriated, and re-discovered by more people all of the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.