Thomas Sutcliffe: Haunted by shadows of the past

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The Independent Online

I encountered an old acquaintance the other day at the British Museum's new exhibition, American Prints: From Hopper to Pollock. But it was one of those slightly embarrassing meetings, where you recognise the face but can't immediately pin down why. I knew we'd met somewhere before, and I knew too that this recognition stirred feelings of affection. But the name and the occasion eluded me.

And then I realised that the reason Grant Wood's picture Shrine Quartet was so familiar was because, some 20 years ago now, I'd had a poster which reproduced a detail from it hanging on my kitchen wall. We'd seen a lot of each other for a while, before I moved house and we lost touch. And with that realisation came an odd little lurch of uncertainty. Given that I'd liked it so much back then, how would we get on now, once the shock of reminiscence had passed? They don't always work, these reunions. People change – and so do pictures sometimes, their charms hard to reconstruct when you've lost the first infatuation.

I know why I liked it then, though I can't remember where I bought the poster or which exhibition it was originally a part of. It was the picture's combination of the banal and the mysterious that did the trick, the way that the suburban faces of the four shriners, lit from below, were counterpointed against their own stretched shadows and a flat mural of Egyptian pyramids. I liked the missing-step jolt that you got as your eyes passed from the bits of the image you might read as stretching out to the horizon to the bits that give away how shallow the picture space actually is. And I suspect the image fed a slightly callow sense of superiority – the confident feeling that this ersatz ceremony could be looked down on from a metropolitan (and a British) perspective.

I don't think I had any idea at the time that the man who'd created this image also produced one of the best-known and most parodied pictures in American art, Wood's painting American Gothic, in which a pair of expressionless mid-Westerners face square on to the viewer in front of a pioneer chapel. Indeed, I didn't make the connection the other day until I read the exhibition catalogue – Wood being one of those artists who are less famous than the paintings they've made. But once the connection was established it seemed obvious – and it clarified some of the appeal of Shrine Quartet. Like American Gothic, it's a picture which is calculatedly blank about its intentions. You can, of course, take it as a satire, as many did with American Gothic (much to Wood's dismay), but there really isn't anything in the image itself that could be regarded as a prejudicial additive. Twenty years ago, I thought Wood was inviting me to laugh with him – and was happy to oblige. Looking at it now, it seems a much more humane picture, not blind to the mismatch between the exotic props and the sturdy respectability of the singers, but also touched by this slightly odd vision of brotherhood.

There are other Grant Wood pictures in the British Museum show. One is a dull rural landscape, an exercise in Disney expressionism which is all artfully canted angles. But the other, Sultry Night, is as good as American Gothic and Shrine Quartet in the way that it takes straightforwardly realistic subject matter and distils a prairie surrealism out of it.

Sultry Night shows a farmer at the end of the day, stark naked and rinsing himself down with a bucket of water drawn from a zinc horse-trough. But the balance of the picture – its crepuscular light and the votive symmetry of the man's arms – convert it into something much more than a vignette of rural life. There are things in it that look documentary in impulse – such as the farmer's pale body, tanned wherever his dungarees expose the skin and pallid white from the bib downwards – but it's unmistakeably a transcendent image, too. There's something of Caspar Friedrich about it – even though you'd be hard pressed to find a landscape less Alpine than the American plains, or a pose that more directly contradicted Friedrich's distant visionaries.

It's wonderful, I think – and it suggests that what Shrine Quartet and I had going back then was worth hanging on to. I'd always thought of that poster as a kind of one-hit wonder – a single brilliant image best enjoyed as a poster, a format which amplified its graphic contrasts. Now, 20 years on, I realise that the man who made it had other hits to his name as well. And this time round I don't think the name will slip my mind.