There's something I love about a Paul Shambroom photo in the collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The 1999 image captures a city council meeting in tiny Dassel, Minn. (population 1,134). Four middle-aged women, including the mayor, sit in a modest meeting room surrounded by maps and flags. Though they're casually dressed - and each has a can of Coke at the ready - there's a seriousness to the proceedings.
Because Sham-broom's photo is printed on canvas and then varnished, it almost appears to be an oil painting, calling to mind portraits of civic officials throughout art history. While there may be a gently comic element to the photo, there's also a quiet dignity. This is how democracy works: unglamorously, from the ground up, through the efforts of people who care enough to make it happen.
Shambroom's photo is just one of over 80 works of art - photographs, paintings, prints and sculpture - in the museum's newest exhibition, Apple Pie: Symbols of Americana in MMoCA's Permanent Collection. On view through April 11, the show examines the myths and realities of American life. Major themes include the West, landscapes and city life.
While Shambroom's photo is a slice of earnest, small-town America, Apple Pie also explores the darker side. Several photos from Larry Clark's Tulsa portfolio document the drug culture of the 1960s and '70s. In one, a man helps a woman inject drugs. There's an undercurrent of violence as well; in other Tulsa shots, we see a man with a revolver and a woman with a black eye.
Landscapes include John Steuart Curry's large Madison Landscape of 1941, an idealized view of the city in autumn. While capturing the majestic Capitol and the isthmus, Curry chose to omit signs of industry on the east side. Other regionalist artists working in a similar vein and included here are Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. They depict farmers at work, suggesting virtues like industriousness and self-reliance and the bounty of the land.
Numerous Wisconsin-based artists are featured, including Charles Munch and UW faculty like Frances Myers, Fred Stonehouse and William Weege. Myers' 1974 print Gotham features a brilliantly pared-down composition. We see just the top of New York's Chrysler building, that fabulous Art Deco skyscraper, and a few other buildings set against a blank, impassive sky. It's as if the noise and bustle of the city has halted for this one quiet instant.
Weege's 1976 screenprint All American mixes several national obsessions: politics, sex and sports. We see headlines about labor riots in Michigan and images of Nixon, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding days, football players, America's founding fathers and a woman who might be from a soft-core porn magazine.
The country's ethnic diversity is reflected in works by Native American and African American artists, including Harlem Renaissance notables like James Van Der Zee and Romare Bearden.
In the end, while it's impossible to definitively tackle a subject as broad as the United States, Apple Pie allows viewers to consider many facets of our national experience, from romanticized cowboys and farmers to the disaffected.