What statement did the 'American Gothic' knockoff make about public art?

It's not a shocker, really, that the figures lifted from one of American art's most famous images and made enormous and three-dimensional have proved so popular.

There is something both surprising and pleasing about encountering God Bless America, J. Seward Johnson Jr.'s 25-foot-tall knockoff of "American Gothic," on its pedestal along Michigan Avenue, just north of the Chicago River.The farmer and his daughter look so much like the people in Grant Wood's painting it's almost surreal (without in any way representing surrealism). And yet, there they are, freed of the canvas at the Art Institute, looking as excited about their escape as they might about falling crop prices.

The man with the pitchfork and the woman with the prim collar gaze stoically across at the Wrigley Building, tourists dropped in from a time and place where pitchforks weren't just items from movie mob scenes.

Yet stand for a time, and watch people come upon the sculpture. You see, mostly, stops, smiles and, in short order, snapshots. People clamber over the suitcase that the sculptor has placed at the pair's feet -- an addition to the painting, which stops at the waist. They kneel on the sidewalk to try to photograph the statue heads amid the towering hotels and office buildings around them.

Critics can wag fingers at it -- and some do -- but God Bless America meets some of the fundamental tests of public art. It is noticed, it is appreciated, and, in many cases, it provokes reflection on what makes an art work original.

"Look how happy people are," said Emily Thacker, a retiree from Los Altos, Calif., pointing at the dozen or so engaged with the sculpture from various angles on a late afternoon in early autumn, a scene typical throughout the sculpture's residence, which began almost a year ago and has been extended to an unknown date past a planned mid-October departure.

"It brings art into their daily lives," she said, noting that she was there just after viewing the painting to which the sculpture, arguably, pays homage.

Thacker's traveling companion, Linda Canavan, is a docent at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. She called the Johnson work "very clever" and "eye-catching," and said that it was another in a long line of images, from the serious to the comic, that have been based on the Wood painting.

"The image is so iconic," she said, "... and it encourages people to go to the museum."

Indeed, since being put up in Pioneer Plaza for display last December, God Bless America has become, by most estimates, one of the top public-art attractions in a city that believes, even with a tight budget, in buying and displaying art and boasts several superstars of the genre. These include the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Calder's Flamingo in Federal Plaza and, surpassing everything in popularity these days, Cloud Gate, commonly known as The Bean, in Millennium Park.

"This one is pure photo-op potential," Elizabeth Kelley, director of the city's Public Art Program, said of God Bless America. "It's very clever. I never drive by it that someone isn't taking a picture of it."

But there's a rub. The Picasso, the Calder, Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, they've hit that public-art sweet spot of serving two audiences, cognoscenti and passers-by.

On Cloud Gate, for instance, Kelley said, "You would be hard pressed to find someone in the art world who doesn't think that it's a terrific object as art, and then it's beloved by the public as well.

"But that's a rare recipe for a large-scale work that has no sentimental or historic attachment to it."

The sculpture by Johnson -- a consumer products heir who made his art name crafting realistic statues of everyday people frozen in ordinary moments but who conceived God Bless America as part of a series based on other artists' images -- gets less glowing reviews.

"It's very successful," Kelley said. "I really like it. It is incredibly well crafted. It's high craftsmanship as a public art piece. It doesn't inspire me as a work of art the way Cloud Gate or the Picasso does. ... As an art historian, it's not my favorite genre where one artist appropriates another artist's imagery. But to everybody his own right."

Tony Tasset, an Oak Park sculptor who has works in the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art collections, as well as sculptures on display as public art in the city (see his "Snow Pile for Chicago" in the old Goldblatt's building on Chicago Avenue just west of Ashland), saw the Johnson piece under construction, he said.

There's a shop in New Jersey that does detailed enlargements in foam, and he was having a clay figure he'd made blown up at the same time as some of Johnson's famous-art appropriation pieces.

The sculptor said he finds God Bless America, in a sense, friendly.

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