In the digital age, technology is omnipresent. People clutch ever-smaller, ever-faster gadgets. At the same time, it doesn't seem like the U.S. actually manufactures much anymore.
But the technological transformation of society is nothing new; a vast range of technologies that we now take for granted has shaped our culture for a long time. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art examines themes of industrialization, technology and our relationship with urban and rural environments in two related shows, "The Industrial Modern" (through Sept. 4) and "Picturing Technology: Land and Machine" (through Aug. 21).
Modes of transportation - and the commerce they enable - figure prominently in both shows. We see images of subways, railroads, waterways, streets. In Donald Shaw MacLaughlin's 1910 etching, The Pool of London, included in "The Industrial Modern," we see the River Thames clogged with dinghies and other kinds of boats. The iconic Tower Bridge is obscured in the background - MacLaughlin's composition makes it clear this is working London, not the picturesque city of tourist postcards.
Men of Steel, a 1941 etching by American artist Samuel L. Margolies, celebrates the gravity-defying construction workers who built major cities. From their lofty, dangerous perch on a suspended I-beam, two men are immersed in their work. Because their heads are down, they become faceless yet heroic Everymen. Margolies' sharply geometric composition highlights the rigid lines of skyscrapers and the grid of streets down below.
While "The Industrial Modern" focuses on city life mostly through prints and photographs by American and European artists, including major names like Fernand Léger and Berenice Abbott, "Picturing Technology" casts a wider net in terms of mediums and conceptual approaches to the subject.
Some of the most appealing images include O. Winston Link's crisp black-and-white photos from 1957 of steam locomotives in rural areas at night. Link's photographs are visually striking, and they are a testament to the nostalgia evoked by older technologies.
Last Light by Richard Florsheim, a 1976 color lithograph, is arresting. Distilled into a palette of black, gray and orangey-red, the print captures that fleeting time just as the sun is going down and the lights of cars and cities become visible from above (Florsheim employs a hovering, bird's-eye view).
There are numerous images of farm life, including photo series by Archie Lieberman and Thomas Frederick Arndt. Arndt's 1985 Interior, the Sellner Home, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota juxtaposes the mythology and the reality of rural life. In a typical living room, a man naps on the couch in the glow of a TV. The room is decorated with old pistols, an antique yoke, figurines of Native Americans and other items suggesting a romantic attachment to U.S. history that seems off-kilter with the banality of the scene.
Works in the exhibition both celebrate technology and its abilities to help us travel, communicate and work, and critique the mixed blessings and outright danger technology often brings.
At times, the theme is interpreted so broadly that "Picturing Technology" begins to lose a bit of its focus, but this is still an excellent chance to see a wide range of work from MMoCA's permanent collection.