Thursday, May 31, 2007

Crop Art

I was looking for "crop art". This was not what I had in mind.

But Lucy and Ricky are, in fact, crop art, of a kind. It’s not hideous. It’s a serious medium. Seeds of all kinds (thistle, millet, wheat, clover, etc.) are glued to a piece of cardboard. Take for instance Che Guevera done in beans:

Unfortunately, the crop art of perennial Minnesota State Fair winner Lillian Colton was the best of the genre. I say unfortunately, because the images cannot be reproduced here (not that I ever let that stop me in the past), but her site has a portrait gallery that will knock your socks off. Everything from Shirley Temple to Andy Warhol. Colton even did a group portrait from the "We Are the World" recording session. (Seeds used:timothy, canola, pine needles, clover, brome grass, poppy seeds, grits)

Still, this is not what I was looking for. But if it were, I’d return to the most memorable stop on my trip through South Dakota, the Mitchell Corn Palace:
The world's only Corn Palace began as "The Corn Belt Exposition" in 1892, a promotional enterprise established to showcase the rich agricultural region of the James Valley. The exposition became a popular annual event, and an icon of the American prairie. The Corn Palace has occupied three different buildings since 1892. Adorned each autumn with corn, grains, and native grasses in decorative patterns and themes, the Corn Palace has hosted famous entertainers, politicians, and community events.

I seem to recall hearing some disturbing news about the Corn Palace in the past year or so, but can’t locate the story. It is basically the world’s largest bird feeder, and it might have had something to do with that. Or maybe it was the genetically modified corn. Wish I could remember.

But getting back to the subject at hand, here’s what I had in mind when I went looking for crop art:

Stan Herd is the star of crop art. For over 20 years Herd has worked the earth using indigenous materials to produce evocative and mystical works. From 160 acre plowed portraits to one quarter acre intimate stone designs, his work has become a platform for discussion of mankind's contemporary relationship to the land.

From his website –
"Several things happened to Herd in the 1970's to interest him in the idea of art from above. Two television documentaries had a huge impact on him--one about the mysterious line drawings in the Nazca Desert in Peru (such as the spider pictured here), which make sense only when viewed from the air; and the other about Christo..."
-Jim Robbins for Smithsonian magazine, July 1994

"...with a profound sensitivity to the implications of his art, Stan Herd combines an awareness of the prairie soil in his native state with a global concern for humanity, and his imagery offers a new and dramatic prospect for the interrelationship of all three."
-Joni Kinsey,Plain Pictures, 1996

"When first viewing my work, many people think they are looking at a photo retouched or computer enhanced image. This couldn't be further from the truth. The imperfections inherent in an artform which depends on wind, rain, temperature, insects, and living vegetation reveals an art whose evolving form is measured by the beauty of the struggle."
-Stan Herd, March 1998
Back in 1994, inspired by Stan Herd, Norman Greig, a fruit and dairy farmer from Red Hook, New York convinced fellow farmers to create crop art pieces to draw attention to farmers' issues, and let people know that farming is still a viable concern. 14 works were completed:

Some of the works were best viewed from the air. Others could be seen from nearby roads. Greig himself created a two-acre maze carved into his field that could be walked through on the ground or viewed as a graphic image from the air. Barton Orchards produced a petroglyphic image of a green apple with a worm in it over 18 acres (above). Most designs were thematic to the farms that participated. Stony Kill Farm, a beef and crop farm, did a 1/4-acre "Stony Kill Grazing Cow" while Moody Hill Farm Market created a 1/4-acre "Floral Field" and the five-acre "Mixed Vegetables." F.W Battenfeld and Son, a Christmas tree and wholesale florist farm, produced a two-acre "Battenfeld's Christmas Tree."

The writer of the article, Steven Durland, adds:
I raised the question of why they chose art rather than more traditional lobbying vehicles. Greig considered it a natural response. "I think farmers are artists, whether they realize it or not," he said. "It's a similar commitment and a similar aesthetic and that's what keeps farmers coming back." And why landscape-scale crop art? Greig pointed out that all you have to do is look at an aerial view of farmland to see that it's already a work of art, so crop art just calls attention to the fact.

From an art standpoint, one can't help but note the precedents, especially the Minimal and Conceptual Earth Artists of the late '60s and '70s—Smithson, Oppenheim, Holt, Morris and others, many of whom did at least some of their creating in New York State. But these farmers don't seem to share the art "self-conciousness" of this recent avant-garde. Herd is a contemporary influence, but perhaps what they all share is a mytho-poetic response to land — the process of birth, growth, harvest and hybernation — that has inspired artists and farmers since the beginning of time to celebration and expression. They are creating art as part of the process of creating sustenance. "There's nothing new about crop art," notes Greig. "It goes back hundreds and even thousands of years."

And Stan Herd deserves at least some credit for the maize maze craze, as exemplified by this work in Lancaster County, PA:

It all lends a different meaning to the term "landscape art".

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