Screw City: A different kind of greatness

Rockford, the place we all love to hate. Anyone who has grown up here, gone to school here, and/or lived and worked here has a litany of complaints and criticisms about our poor, old “Forest City.” The schools are a mess, there’s nothing to do, and what about those property taxes? With all the animosity, it’s a wonder the population hasn’t fled long ago, abandoning the city to the rats.

But like it or not, we’re all still here. We are the underdogs, certainly, but we are all in it together.

Nowhere has this been illustrated better than in Rockford Art Museum’s recent exhibition, Screw City: Artists Fabricating a History of Rockford. The opening shattered records with more than 800 in attendance, a testament to the sense of community and creative talent that is alive and well in good old No. 300.

Of course, as a participant in the exhibition, I might be biased. But my own piece was far from being the best in a quirky showcase of talent. Forty local artists, from those still in school, to porn star and Rockford native Ginger Lynn Allen, to the ubiquitous Tom Heflin contributed to the exhibition, using every type of media you can imagine.

As a whole, the show takes a gentle and humorous view of Rockford. Sock monkeys (who are Rockford natives born from the old Nelson Knitting Company) are the most popular subject, closely followed by the screws, nuts, and bolts that represent the city’s manufacturing history. Forest city trees, landmarks, and potato chips are common as well.

Popular opinion maintains Robert McCauley’s oil painting Origin of the Species of a sock monkey swinging from the trees in a jungle as the best work in the show. Painted in a style reminiscent of the old masters, Origin has a warm, dark background taken straight from a medieval painting. The juxtaposition of a realistic sock monkey in an antique grand scene is both spectacular and jarring.

Another notable work is Joe Church’s mixed media Dancers, a monument to Rockford’s natural beauty (pun intended). Beneath the silhouette of stylized trees are signs for some familiar local establishments: The Surf, Ken’s Hideaway, and State Street Station.

One of several artists who handled the darker side of Rockford’s history was Kathryn R. Martin. Her found object imaging Thirst is composed of water bottles with logos of local corporations. In her artist’s statement, Martin recounts the problems of groundwater contamination as a result of the “toxic nature of industry: solvents, lubricants, degreasers, dry cleaning, machines, furniture varnish, paint, “and the Solution to no longer consider groundwater as a useable resource at this point.”

There had been concerns from the powers that be of having a “fair and balanced” exhibition; the fear seeming to be that the artists would handle the local theme with nothing but political criticism and extremist views. If anything, Screw City went too far in the other direction. While many symbols of our city were everywhere, there was next to no commentary on job loss, the school district, or local political figures. Has a wave of political correctness struck? Or are the artists just afraid of harming their sales or reputations? The lack of edgy work that tackles Rockford’s problem is Screw City’s weak point.

At any rate, the support for opening night was tremendous, and more fun than many of us has had in a long time. All the friends and relatives who turned out helped make the evening a big success…and there’s nothing more inspiring to realize that there actually are people in town who are interested in what the artists have to show. Due to Screw City’s popularity, museum curator Scott Snyder is tentatively planning a similar exhibition, based on views of Rockford’s future, later this year.

If you never manage to make it to the museum again, come out and see this show. It’s in the main gallery of Rockford Art Museum until Oct. 24. You might leave thinking Rockford is not so bad after all.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!