Art Review Archives:
UNION IMAGES 2000
Chicago Cultural Center
"An honest day's work, for an honest day's wage." An ever-present demand which satisfies the necessities of food, clothing, shelter. People have lived by it, and often died for it. "UNION IMAGES 2000: Fifty-Five Artists Explore Human Labor" is a history and a tribute to those who work, and who organized and fought to ensure they could. This exhibition, showing at the Chicago Cultural Center from September 2 through October 15, 2000 presents the work of fifty-five artists, most from Chicago, and includes portraits of the men and women who labor, their work situations, their tools, and, as well, images from a history we dare not ever forget. It was organized by the Chicago Federation of Labor, the central AFL-CIO labor council for Cook County; and is co-presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.
An equally common saying runs: "A man is, what a man does." It's true to a degree, as shown by so many common names -- Smith, Cutter, Baker, Shepherd... even Butler. (This is even more true in languages other than English.) But at the core of any work, there are individuals, real human beings. The phrase "But you've got to work at it!" highlights a fact: People work. Machines merely function. People improve and refine skills, use their senses and their reason, just 'feel' when something's 'right' (or 'out-of-whack'), finesse the unexpected, and at times go far beyond the call of duty. That may be why so many fine artists answered to "Union Images 2000." And a good portion of this exhibition includes images of flesh and blood working people. They are more than just what they do.
Andre Pierre - Electrician is a collaboration by sculptor Margaret Lanterman and painter Nancy Plotkin, and combines an oil portrait of the electrician with a cast of his hands. Lanterman, the daughter of a tool-and-die maker from the Chicago suburb of Westmont, credits her father's occupation for inspiring "an appreciation of elegantly crafted objects." Lanterman and Plotkin together affirmed: "We work with our hands. What we want to show in these portraits is the dignity of the individual worker, the expressiveness and beauty of their hands and the sense that hands are the instruments of the mind." That Lanterman's sculpted hands are three-dimensional, tactile, and that Plotkin's painting renders the personality of their possessor as illusion on flat surface, together generates a conceptual parallel to the material nature of hands and the immateriality of the mind that guides them. It is a collaborative art which leaves a lasting impression. This multiple-piece was awarded the Second Place Award for "Union Images 2000." Margaret Lanterman received her BFA from Quincy College aqnd an MFA from the University of Illinois, Chicago. Nancy Plotkin received a BFA in English Literature from the University of Illinois, Urbana; as well as a BFA and a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bus Boys by Diana Cutrone of Glenview, Illinois, displays a polished but forthright realist approach. One of the most striking and well-conceived features of Bus Boys is the division of background at mid-canvas. The vibrant black of the image's upper half, in contrast with the immaculate white uniforms of the two young men, concentrates intense scrutiny to the individual faces portrayed. In addition, while the shorter figure at right gazes directly at the viewer, his companion at left turns three-quarters to stare off-canvas. A viewer senses activity beyond the image, perhaps a call to return to work, and is led to regard the individuals more closely. Cutrone exhibits frequently in Chicago and her work, particularly her portraiture and her animal paintings, constitute a firm body of studies in character. Bus Boys received the First Purchase Prize Award in this showing.
In a similar vein, Carol Luc's excellent rendering, Break at the End of a Run... (14"x17"), captures a soft quality of remembrance in meticulous, thin strokes of white pencil on dark paper. Luc is a member of the Chicago Artists' Coalition and will be showing in that organization's "Chicago Art Open 2000."
Pat Olson's Ace in The Hole (Oil on linen: 48"x60") presents three city workers, two aiding a third who descends into a manhole. Pat Olson is long familiar, both to Chicago's art scene and to the many working men and women whom she has joined in order to paint them, on site and while they worked. Over the many years, Olson has avidly sought out construction sites, canal diggings, street repair work; at early hours, in hot sun and, at times, in risky locations. She is an excellent artist. Olson herself works hard at it, and that may explain her abiding interest in the working man as a central subject for her art. Pat Shaffer Olson studied at Northeastern Illinois University and Loyola University, Chicago, and has been reviewed earlier in www.artscope.net.
Layne Jackson's acrylic on gessoed paper, Singer Man (13"x13"), is a portrait of the professional sewer at his machine. The garment industry has had a history of harsh working conditions, tragedies, and only subsequent regulation and inspection. For a long time, it was a notorious example of how often neither age nor gender barred 'sweat shop labor.' Singer Man portrays an individual at careful, exacting, and fatiguing work. In the context of this subject and the exhibition's theme, a viewer cannot help but recall what it took to make this portrayal one of safe and remunerative work. Jackson has created a dignified portrait. "Union Images 2000" gives it an excellent forum.
James S. Rousonelos's oil on canvas, 9 to 5, is an American genre portrait of a blue-collar worker nearing retirement. In a touch of visual wit worthy of the Dutch 17th century, at upper right of the canvas, a self-portrait of the artist, camera in hand, is reflected toward the viewer. Rousonelos studied at Southern Illinois University. The Chicago Art Review (1989) notes diverse artistic influences on his work, among them Ingres, David, and the photo realist painters of the 1970s. That reference further observes that the artist has for some time been "documenting and critiquing man's existence and plight in contemporary society." This painting, 9 to 5, is both a clever exposition of skill by the artist, and a poignant human reality in its subject: There is a time when even work must come to rest.
Gleaners of Skagit Valley by Nancy Parkinson Albrecht shares the Fourth Place Award with Miriam Romais's black and white photograph, Young Man Surveying Gears. Albrecht is a Chicago artist; Miriam Romais works in New York City. Gleaners of Skagit Valley was literally painted in the field amid laborers who inspired a theme for Washington's 1998 Annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. The artist has noted that she paints from life, and often "on location, in oil and watercolor, on short excursions and on longer trips in this country and abroad." Gleaners of Skagit Valley is bright, Fauvistic, and composed with strong, reduced contours. It is one of many works in "Union Images 2000" which presents laborers in ensemble. And that almost universal condition of labor was what made unions thinkable, and inevitable.
The Migrant Workers (Mixed media/collage:16"X20") by Beverly Ellstand of Park Ridge, Illinois, focuses on a central face. At the image's upper right, one notes the silhouette of pickers in the field, while at the base of the image, the same vignette is repeated in clear, close sepias and ochres. The sweet potato at lower left, and vines at the right bring the multiple images into a unified, reiterative composition. Ellstrand's treatment of the subject lends the work a graphic, print-like modulation.
That such co-laborers are unified not only by their work, but by a kinship of spirit and history, is made explicit by Valerie Pawlak's Faces of American Workers in Generations... (Oil on masonite: 47"x48"). Pawlak notes as theme the passage of time and the diversity of individuals who together continue on as workforce. The artist positions the time clock at the top of the image as a "symbol which unites young and old, black, white, etc. -- male and female -- as the lives of all workers are affected by the clock, either in a day's work, or in the passage of decades." There is a direct color to the contours in her work which harkens to the Synchomist movement in painting; but her content, like Rousonelos's 9 to 5, Samuel Gillis's Businessman, and numerous other works in "Union Images 2000," reminds a viewer how much time dictates to the work at hand. Pawlak's Faces of American Workers in Generations... points to a continuity through which flesh and blood working people defeat even the decades.
There is a great variety offered in "Union Images 2000," and several works veer toward the abstract and ideal -- the symbolic. Many of Piotr Hofman's canvases recall the technique of painter Francis Bacon in their swept distortions of the human form. Hofman's work often displays an Expressionist manner in composition and pose of subject; and a Modernist preference for simplification and stressed, graphic contours. Piotr Hofman's Saint of Labor (Oil on canvas: 32"x24") distills a digger into a dynamic vision in what seems a Modernist icon. Here, the Saint of Labor wields pickax in hand and it serves much like a Medieval Saint's emblematic attribute. Polish-born Piotr Hofman now lives in West Dundee, Illinois. Piotr Hofman is but one among many in an exhibition which is well-jurored, of excellent quality, and which covers a surprisingly diverse spectrum of styles, intents and interests within a single theme.
"Union Images 2000" includes paintings, prints, photographs, watercolors and mixed media, as well as computer-generated art. Michael K. Paxton jurored the fifty-five works from nearly 200 submitted by artists from Illinois and nationwide. The display was curated by Elena Marcheschi, arts and labor attorney of the Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College. Marcheschi is also a member of the Illinois Arts Council. UNION IMAGES 2000 runs from September 2 through October 15, 2000 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street, Chicago. A number of related lectures and a poetry reading are scheduled during the exhibition. Full information is available from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs: Telephone: 312/ 744-6630. An exhibition poster, which reproduces award-winning works from "Union Images 2000," is on sale at the Chicago Cultural Center's store (first floor). http://www.cityofchicago.org/Tour/CulturalCenter/
Finis PART I
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Many of the books cited in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and may be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Of particular merit is Songs of Work and Protest, compiled by Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer (Dover: 1973), originally issued in 1960 by the Labor Education Division of Roosevelt University in Chicago. Beverly Ellstrand was recently anthologized in Chicago Art Scene (Crow Woods Press: 1999), which offers an artist's statement and biography. In addition, Pat Olson and Diana Berek were reviewed in www.artscope.net as part of "Artists of Rogers Park at Excalibur" (October 1999). Diana Cutrone of Glenview, Illinois, is also noted in a www.artscope.net past review, "For Animals' Sake" (August 1999).