The Rural America Contemporary Art Group
In the two years since The Art of the Rural began, we’ve seen how rapid changes in new media have enabled rural artists to not only share their work, but to create networks and movements that transcend the easy boundaries that might define “rural arts and culture.”
The emergence of the Rural America Contemporary Art group (RACA) is a significant addition to this groundswell of interest in the process and products of art-marking outside of the cities. As with complementary movements in vernacular music and socially-engaged architecture and design, the work of RACA suggests how aesthetics, composition and social (and spatial) awareness can be successfully integrated – and how the end result can produce something that, as with Gregory Euclide’s relief work above, refuses to be confined to traditional dimensions.
MSU art professor and contemporary painter Brian Frink didn’t start it. He just named it and collected it in one place. Bouncy, good-natured, and a bit of a schemer (he convinced his wife they should buy an abandoned poor farm south of Mankato — and then raise their kids there), Frink started to notice something peculiar in his students: The drive to leave home and strike out for New York or other large “art cities” to embark on a career seems to be dissipating.And he noticed something else: Artists he knew were connecting with each other, with audiences, and even with paying customers via Facebook.The two, he believed, must be related. Unlike Brooklyn in the ’80s, where Frink rented a 2,000-square-foot loft/studio for $150 a month, today’s young artists are priced out of the famous art cities. What young person can afford studio space in San Francisco, New York, even Chicago? Most of them can’t even afford to rent an apartment there. Plus, the critical interaction and cross-pollination of ideas on which contemporary art relies — once the domain of big urban populations — makes its home on social media now, and can be hosted by anyone with a domain name.
Contemporary art is seeing a surge of interest in what I call “the rural.” I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one decisive factor appears to be a shared reaction to anxiety. I am reminded of Regionalist painter Grant Wood’s essay Revolt Against the City (1935) where he quotes Carl Van Doren, asserting that any society—American society in particular—tends to re-evaluate itself every thirty years or so in response to some kind of outside trauma. We are currently facing compound concerns on a pandemic level: political unrest (9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, partisanship), social unrest (gay marriage, nationalism, immigration), environmental concerns (global warming, genetic engineering, carbon footprints), economic meltdown…the list goes on and on. To alleviate a perceived loss of control, individuals search for a sense of grounding. In my opinion, a return to the rural seems to be the latest form of such introspection, and as a result, artists are looking back to traditional—and perhaps more stable—ways of life. We are witnessing a preponderance of agricultural/community gardening projects, references to rodeos, cowboys, taxidermy, hunting, an interest in vernacular architecture, etc.
Having grown up on my grandparents’ ranch, the rural, for me, is tied up with identity. Although most people now live in and around cities, many practicing artists are not native to urban areas. Embracing their roots is a way of acknowledging and clarifying identity—of mining their personal, formative experiences to produce work that is at once contemporary and local. I am again reminded of Grant Wood’s Revolt. His ideas seem particularly interesting now, as technology has performed a major role in creating global homogenization while at the same time making it possible to share remotely generated ideas on a global scale. Art that reflects non-urban sensibilities not only adds to the rich texture of contemporary art but points to possible connections between seemingly disparate cultures.