Gender Crash: A Semiotic Analysis of Masculine Sexuality in Grant Wood's Death on the Ridge Road

Mark Lisowski


Grant Wood is one of the most significant American artists in history, yet one of the most enigmatic figures in Wetern art.  His Death on the Ridge Road, painted in 1935, renders plainly the scene of a pending car accident.  In this image, one may see a truck careening toward a car that it cannot see on the other side of a hill, and we might imagine that in only moments the automobile will be utterly destroyed.  The people inside will be subjected to a miserable death, mangled in the wreckage or perhaps suspended from the electrical and barbed wires that surround the road.  One may imagine the pavement becoming as red as the approaching truck.  A superficial analysis of the painting might take it only at face value, as a celebreation of the macabre, but this research argues that there is more than meets the eye in the work.  Since the 2010 publication of a critical biography about Grant Wood by Tripp Evans, the scholarly community now understands this artist as a closeted gay man.  This scrutiny builds on Evans' work, but takes it in a new direction through semiotic analysis.  Other scholars have also undertaken analyses of Wood's painting, using his biography as an interpretive framework, but they have not focused on specific systems of signs and symbols.  To deepen and nuance the scholarly understanding of this painting, depictions of automobiles and nature within the image are closely considered, focusing on the metaphorical content they express.  This analysis regards questions about what cars and nature meant to Americans at this time.  How might cars represent manhood in Wood's painting?  If they are a vehicle for gender identity, might their placement and movement in the image suggest the struggle for acceptance that homosexuals faced generally, and Wood may have faced specifically?  How do renderings of nature in the picture contribute to a deeper understanding of this strife?  What might the content of the image suggest about the cultural condition of gay men in the early-mid twentieth century America - the time during which Grant Wood painted the scene?  To answer such questions, this investigation systematically examines images published during the 1930s in the American press to reconstruct the mindset of Wood, as the artist, as well as the innumerable people who viewed this painting when it was new.  In particular, imagery from The Saturday Evening Post, and Time magazines is used as a data set and, by doing so, ultimately argues that Death on the Ridge Road uses a visual vocabulary that is no longer intuitive to us today to evoke the struggle that homosexuals encountered during the 1930s.


Homosexuality; Automobiles; 1930s Advertisements

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