If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, its even harder to spot when the beautiful object is something that illuminates the voices of workers today. Alas, today's art world is not where a Diego Rivera mural is easily found. Nor today's bookshelves (and Kindles) likely to be filled with John Steinbeck's heir apparent. But there are some folk we managed to find out there so lets salute them as Labor Day approaches.
Art shows that depict work are usually left for the halls of labor unions and its usually pretty heavy-handed or "on the nose" so its refreshing to see a small crop of galleries and museums trying to push it out with a fresh eye. For this year, four shows were found to be doing that. "Today I Made Nothing" mounted by the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York takes perhaps the greatest or most abstract license. As Artforum's Colby Chamberlain put it, the show "investigates the difficulty in defining labor today, when ceaseless activity may have nothing to show for itself."
"Closed Mondays" at the scrappy grayDUCK Gallery in Austin, TX took work in art and flipped the script by presenting a body of works by artists who work in museums - security guards, installers, and the like. And while the show "Small Trades" featuring stark images of workers by venerable photographer Irving Penn may be the most traditional, the fact that it would be a highlight in - ne' juxtaposed against - the sprawling labyrinth of stone that is the Getty Center makes it a standout exhibition.
But the best show of the year was perhaps the smallest on a block across from the LaBrea Tar Pits. "Myth and Manpower" at the jewel-box sized Craft and Folk Art Museum packed in a show that takes artwork from California fruit label boxes and marketing and juxtaposes them with artwork cultivated for use as protest posters for United Farm Workers. The influences and then twists on classic American advertising is something the likes of Adbusters could only appreciate and that we all would not notice unless somebody pointed it out so vividly as this show does. There were even protest sign-making workshops.
Moving from canvasses to bookcases, there are four books of note. One, "Border Songs" by Jim Lynch is the lone piece of fiction on our list. And even it is rooted in some realities. In this case, those that surround folks trying to make a living legally and illegally along an unsung border - that between Canada and Washington State.
On the Non-Fiction side, there's a short list, namely "Wherever There is a Fight" by Elaine Elinson, and "Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Matthew Crawford. Both are good but I like "Shop Class" for this year. Self-described as a philosopher/mechanic's wise and sometimes funny look at the challenges and pleasures of working with one's hands, it is the antidote to the "Today I Made Nothing" art exhibit cited earlier. It makes us question the value of work that makes big money both in terms of its production and what it does for the human spirit. There's something refreshing about a guy working on motorcycles making an eloquent argument against "phonies" ala Holden Caulfield.
Next Category: Films
Special thanks to Lilla Weinberger at Readers' Books in Sonoma, CA for her contribution to the books portion.