I usually hate art about small towns. There is no better playground for clichés. I’ve lived in small towns all over this country and it’s made me understand how complicated life gets when just a few thousand people depend on each other for economic well-being, a social life and a sense of community.
Instead, small towns are painted with a halo. My least favorite word -- “quaint” -- gets overused. Or, they take the jaundiced view -- meth and generational secrets, black and white photos of that trailer on the edge of town and a detail shot of the dirt on the door handle of the rundown diner. It a version of the place, but rarely the place itself.
So, I was half-dreading what I would find when I walked into the “Portrait of Maquoketa” exhibit at the Figge Art Museum. I wandered down after work on Thursday – the night when it’s free and open until 9 p.m. I heard the buzz. That this exhibit was something amazing, that it was something different. Unexpected.
It is all those things.
First, there is the chair. Thirty-four panels hang from the ceiling in arcs of varied lengths. You can walk among them, looking closely at the details. Or you can sit. There’s a chair, precisely placed. Sit in it and all 34 panels line up into a seamless panorama of Maquoketa. From that chair, the viewer is placed at the edge of a field, looking out over shaven corn fields. Dried grass draws lines along the irrigation ditches. You can see the small white houses of town. The silos. The creekside patch of cottonwoods.
The key to experiencing “Portrait of Maquoketa” is patience. Stay in that chair for a while. The longer you look, the more you see. And hear.
There’s a sound composition that plays for the person in that chair. It sounds like fall – the clapping of hardened leaves and dried grass. Then a cello starts to play. Then voices of people talking about themselves, about the town, singular voices at first and then the din of a crowd. The sounds combine and rise and then settle back down into just the quiet of the landscape – a few songbirds, a cow, a bard owl. Then, the cello again.
On the back side of each landscape panel are portraits of Maquoketa residents. Close up of their faces. And as with the landscape, the viewer is rewarded for patience. The longer your look, the more the faces reveal themselves. I tried to figure out how she did it – artist Rose Frantzen. Maybe it’s the little bit of shine she puts on the lower lid of the eyes, or maybe it’s just something deeper that happens when you have permission to look at someone for a while, but there’s a moment of transformation with each face, if you look long enough, where something about the inner life is revealed of the person portrayed.
It feels very intimate.
Frantzen obviously has a tremendous amount of affection for Maquoketa, and compassion for people in general.
Even if you don’t like art, or don’t think you do, this show is worth checking out. It shows a nuanced understanding of this corner of the world and the people who live here.
On one of the walls, separate from the main piece, there’s a painting I found especially profound in this way. It is of an old man, shirt off, skin sagging just below his rib cage. His feet are a maze of blue veins. His toenails are long. He’s getting out of bed, stepping onto the floor, but the floor is a field, just planted with rows of spring corn.
There is no commentary. No lecture. No cliché. But it is a statement and a chance to really see.