Review: Meiners is provocative but not always compelling in updates of classic Rockwell images

maggie meiners rockwell review

Maggie Meiners’ “Freedom From Want” photo, left, along with Norman Rockwell’s original “Freedom From Want.”

There is no American artist less in need of re-visitation than Norman Rockwell. Decades after his last magazine cover, his gentle, opinionated, occasionally treacly work is still all around us. Film directors incorporate his imagery into their shots, graphic artists pinch his designs, musicians slap spoofs of his illustrations on their album covers. His reputation has largely been rehabilitated, his technical skills lauded, and his distinctive vision embraced. There is something about Rockwell’s scenes of halcyon America that makes viewers — even sophisticated ones — want, quite desperately, to inhabit them. In defiance of the laws of physics, narrative and, perhaps, good taste, artists of all kinds keep attempting to step into Rockwell’s canvases.

The latest to try is Maggie Meiners of Chicago, whose “Revisiting Rockwell” series, on view at the Montclair Art Museum until June 13, consists of work that re-creates (and updates) 18 world-famous Rockwells.

Rockwell painted from photographs he took; Meiners takes photographs of people posed in classic Rockwell scenes. Even if she hadn’t told you so, you’d know exactly what she was doing — and that’s a testament to her meticulousness and Rockwell’s ubiquity. If you live in America and you’ve got eyes, you know these images.

Meiners’ motives for engaging with them so comprehensively are less clear. While the show isn’t exactly a tribute, it isn’t a critique, either. Meiners has added black, Muslim and LGBTQ faces to Rockwell scenes that were once arrestingly straight and white, but “Revisiting Rockwell” never feels like condemnation of the painter’s mid-20th Century sensibilities.

One of the photographs in the “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” exhibition provides a modern update on Rockwell’s famous “The Problem We All Live With.”

Rockwell could be quite pointed when he wanted to be, and Meiners, whose affection for the work she is reimagining is apparent throughout the show, recognizes this. She’s drawn to re-work Rockwell’s sociopolitical paintings — not just the famous “The Problem We All Live With,” the 1964 canvas that made his sympathies toward the civil rights movement explicit, but also his “Four Freedoms,” painted in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. Meiners has made these scenarios look more like the multi-ethnic and multicultural America we know. By preserving the postures, the props, the problematic details and the prevailing attitude of Rockwell’s paintings, Meiners implies that not much has changed. Society may be more polyglot, but we’re still struggling with the same inequities and the same power imbalances, and vulnerable to the same casual cruelties that Rockwell’s more trenchant paintings documented.

At its best, Meiners’ project also captures the feeling of precariousness that Rockwell often radiates: the destabilization of a changing country, and ordinary people hanging on tight as the winds shift around them. The faces of color in her version of “Freedom of Worship” are animated with a desperate hope in the American promise of coexistence and equality under the law. In the original “Problem We All Live With,” a fragile-looking African-American girl is escorted to school by National Guardsmen, right in the face of racist graffiti; Meiners re-casts the child as a Latina immigrant in the hands of border police. Her take on “The Gossips” puts cellphones in the hands of the 15 people passing along secrets, but the facial expressions still run the gamut between amusement to rapacity to incredulity. Even if these photographs don’t do much more than contemporize Rockwell’s images, they’re true to the provocative spirit of the originals.

Rockwell’s great theme, though, is one that transcends politics — although it has many political implications. He was fascinated by the terrible distance between the people we are and the people we want to be.

His best canvases communicate the pathos of the aspirant: the child stepping, awkwardly, into the shoes of the grown-up, the barbell-toting weakling donning the suit of the hero, the would-be beauty before the mirror, preparing for a date, the ordinary, provincial American straining to realize the heady ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “Girl at Mirror,” which ran on the cover of an issue of the Saturday Evening Post in 1954, was prescient in its examination of the beauty standard. Rockwell shows us a prepubescent girl with a Hollywood magazine open in her lap, cosmetics in a heap by her bare feet on the floor, staring at the mirror, baby doll forgotten, attempting to grow up all at once. At the “Revisiting Rockwell” show, the original painting hangs next to Meiners’ reinterpretation. The new work gets the lighting right, and reproduces the attitude and the impeccable composition of the 1954 cover. But Rockwell’s painting is such a tight, complete statement that there is nothing left to add.

Maggie Meiners’ photograph “Skin Deep” is part of the “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” exhibition.

And on closer inspection, Rockwell isn’t quite the realist painter that his reputation suggests he is. Many of his faces and bodies are deliberately elongated, or scrunched for artistic effect. He’s not a caricaturist, exactly, but he does have a taste for the fantastic that is often expressed through his subtly surreal representations of his subjects. In “Oh Yeah (Four Sporting Boys),” a painting of kid basketball players in heated argument, the thinness of the gesticulating limbs and pointed fingers is noticeably exaggerated. Meiners’ models — one of whom isn’t a boy — try to generate the same spindly intensity, but because they’re human beings and not cartoons, they end up quite a bit shy of the mark.

Rockwell’s “Discovery,” which is also shown here in its original form, pictures a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, disillusioned little kid who has happened upon a Santa costume in his parents’ bottom drawer. Meiners’ re-visitation is letter-perfect in detail, right down to the antique armoire and the mid-century drab carpet and wallpaper, and even if the whiskey bottle she’s inserted could not be called a modernization, it does heighten the emotional stakes of the image. But her young actor has none of the complexity of expression that Rockwell, with his knack for wondrously deep faces, Thomas Nast-style faces, could always summon. Instead, it looks like he’s watched “Home Alone” — and never mind that movie’s debt to Rockwell, because the parts of Rockwell’s artistry that were easiest for Hollywood to appropriate are exactly the parts that make Rockwell aesthetically suspect.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with a Rockwell re-visitation: while the artist has been critically re-appraised, and his mastery of storytelling, physiognomy, color and composition has been widely appreciated, that doesn’t mean his work isn’t uneven. Even his best paintings are heavy with sentimentality and easy irony, and some of his most famous canvases are his most emotionally manipulative. As he was a designer of mass-market magazine covers, that’s to be expected, and maybe even excused — selling fantasies to middle Americans was his job, and he reached for the lowest common denominator with confidence. But it is hard to engage in a dialogue with an artist who had a professional obligation to be disingenuous. This is the main reason why so many of Meiners’ photographic subjects struggle to approximate the tone and feel of Rockwell’s protagonists. Those characters existed, and will always exist, in an airless, inaccessible American never-was, and can’t breathe outside of those conditions.

A nice place to visit, in other words. But you wouldn’t want to live there — and couldn’t live there, even if you wanted to.

“Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell” runs at the Montclair Art Museum through June 13. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.

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