As every schoolkid knows, the Great Seal of the United States bears the motto "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of many, one."). That Latin phrase is also the title of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's newest exhibition. Drawn from work in MMoCA's permanent collection, the show probes different visions of America.
While some of the artworks are idyllic, even to the point of banality, others touch upon the harsher side of life in these United States -- racism, violence, and greed -- as well as those living outside the mainstream.
Photographer Diane Arbus generated controversy with her images of freakish or marginalized people. Yet her 1965 photo on view here, of a family in a nudist camp, has a kind of gentle humor.
A pair of unclothed parents (or possibly grandparents) sits with their clothed son, who looks to be about 12. They're somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, without other people or buildings visible in the frame -- only the fin of their car can be spotted at the photo's edge. The couple are members of a fringe subculture, yet also seemingly such frumpy, middle-class burghers.
Shimon & Lindemann are a photographic duo known for their portraits of Wisconsinites, from farmers to disaffected teens. Trish and Matt Downtown, Manitowoc, Wisconsin (1995) is an example of the latter. A girl in a Ramones t-shirt and combat boots stands with a friend, looking directly at the camera, amid a typical small-town scene complete with tavern. It's hard not to be reminded of being 16 again and itching to leave your hometown.
In contrast to Arbus or Shimon & Lindemann, a 1947 oil painting by Lois Ireland called Recess presents a more uncomplicated view of small-town life. On a tree-lined street, kids play ring-around-the-rosie and other games outside a church. Nuns shepherd groups of children. One imagines that, in postwar America, this painting was probably a comforting, idealized reminder of "normal" life.
The 1964 Andy Warhol screenprint Birmingham Race Riot (taken from a Life magazine picture by legendary photojournalist Charles Moore) presents a troubling chapter in our history. As the museum acknowledges, the incident is more properly termed a "police riot," as white police wielded clubs and set dogs on peaceful civil rights protestors.
Other works on view -- by artists like Claes Oldenburg, Juan Sanchez, Lee Friedlander and others -- touch upon issues like ethnicity and urban and rural life. While the theme is so broad that no one show can do it justice (indeed, this show might have benefited from a tighter focus), this is still an intriguing selection of pieces from the museum's collection.