The oft-parodied 1930 painting American Gothic by Grant DeVolson Wood is a brilliant slice of pastiche Americana that encourages a voyeuristic imagination on the part of the audience.
It depicts a man and a woman standing in front of a triangular roofed building that neatly divides them. The balding man wears glasses and holds a pitchfork, staring directly out of the frame. The woman stares off to the side of the frame with a perplexed expression. They are clothed in the buttoned up garb of the rural Bible belt, and their stance is the rigid austere pose of bygone photographs where the subjects had to stand as still as possible for the film to develop. Their unsmiling faces have the strange joylessness of a lynch mob.
There is a distinct creepiness about the couple reflected in the horror movie connotations of the painting’s title. This odd couple could be a simple farmer and his wife, or sister. They could be the owners of a bed and breakfast luring travellers in by the smell of home cooked pies with mystery ingredients. The picture inspires the onlooker to make up their own story about the couple, as no information is given. That imaginative curiosity stems from the painting’s creation.
Grant Wood was a regional Mid-West painter whose work documented the rural life of his home state. The building is one that Grant spotted driving around Iowa. He was fascinated by the fact that a pretentious Gothic window had been inset into such a flimsy small white house, made sketches, and took to imagining the kind of people who would live in such a place. The models used are his sister and his dentist, so the painting is an artificial construct rather than an a genuine portrait.
Grant received as much criticism as acclaim for the painting, both for the same reason. It was praised as a satirical depiction of middle America, but was also attacked by Iowans who felt they were being unfairly caricatured and mocked.
Over the years it has become embedded in popular culture with references everywhere, from Brad and Janet’s wedding in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, through tourists posing in front of the building, to hipsters Photoshopping their heads onto Wood’s Iowan folk.
In some ways the painting works as a Rorschach test. Grant maintained the portrait was always meant to be affectionate, but each person’s reaction to the Iowan odd couple says as much about their own values, prejudices and snobbery than any meaning the painter intended. It is the ability for the artwork to reflect it’s changing audience that makes it an enduring icon, and ensures it’s embedding in popular culture.