Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

The New American Gothic

Artist Nicholas Kashian updates an American classic for the 21st century.

Nicholas Kashian is familiar with middles. Born in 1980 to a middle-class family living in a mid-size Illinois town, Kashian’s experience of Middle America has been the theme of his art since he graduated from Arizona State University in 2003 and can be seen in his latest portraiture series New American Gothic.

The show pays homage to Grant Wood’s infamous 1930 painting of a rural couple, “American Gothic.” Both spooky and cozy, Kashian’s paintings depict families sitting together at kitchen tables or in living rooms.  In some, the faces have been entirely whited-out or the eyes covered in black blindfolds. In others, we see heads surrounded by saint-like rings of light.

According to Kashian, the series came about when he discovered some anonymous slides at a Salvation Army in Chicago in 2005.  One set was a travel record of a 1950s black American family and the second set belonged to a white Midwest family at Christmas-time, circa 1970.

“The slides intrigued me.  I was working in the studio on Easter, 2005 and I had been looking at them projected on the wall, just admiring a certain beauty inherent in them.  Then I put a canvas in front of the image and started to paint.  The next day I took out the slide and examined the inscription on the back, ‘Easter breakfast.’ The coincidence kept me returning to the slides as a source.”

Calling the original photographs “objects without rhetoric nor self-reference,” Kashian’s modifications profoundly alter the nostalgia of these ordinary household scenes. The kinship of family reunions is “erased” by their facelessness. Potluck dinners are transformed, via halo, into iconistic religious imagery.

Kashian seems interested in a twenty-first century corruption, manipulation and deconstruction of the very pioneer spirit Wood attempted to depict. This “modernization”—ironically carried out by a process of technical devolution, turning photography into paint—is heightened by that fact that many of the images are of black Americans rather than white farmers (in one example, a copy of Ebony magazine can be seen on the coffee table, a nice alternative to a pitchfork.).

A new kind of portraiture is what Kashian seems to be creating here, turning staple poses into complex “snap-shots” of his Midwest background—a place, he says, “I work both from and against.” Perhaps it is this familiarity that creates the series’ rich sense of intimacy. The experience is  reminiscent of flipping through old family photos, but with the added layer of Kashian’s mysterious modifications.

And according to Kashian the series is still not complete.  His plans for winter 2007-2008 include two shows, in Chicago and Baltimore respectively. But for the most part he wants to continue to explore the iconography of portraiture work.