In March, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine had a mural removed from the state’s Labor Department building. The work, commissioned for $60,000 and installed in 2008, depicts strikes, child labor and the first Labor Day, as well as Rosie the Riveter and Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary. (Both were Maine natives.) According to news reports, the tea-party-backed Republican governor compared these images to North Korean propaganda.
The mural, painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor, remains sequestered in a state government warehouse. But almost-full-size reproductions of its 11 panels are on display in “Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet,” an exhibition at VisArts Rockville’s Kaplan Gallery. The show also includes some original Taylor paintings and sketches, and a facsimile of Michael Spafford’s “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” a two-panel 1981 work rebuffed by the state government that commissioned it. (Evicted from the House chamber in Olympia, Wash., it found a permanent home at Centralia College, where a theater was constructed to mimic its intended setting.)
As its title indicates, the show is meant to bolster both labor and Taylor. Curator Nancy Nesvet, who teaches at the Maine College of Art, writes that she and the people who helped reproduce the murals and organize the exhibition constitute “a union of voices that calls for the murals to take their rightful place on public view.” There probably won’t be much support for LePage’s action when Taylor discusses her project (Saturday at 3 p.m.) or at a panel discussion on the controversy (Thursday at 7 p.m.).
Whether the mural has a “rightful” place in a Maine public building will be determined in court over a lawsuit arguing that LePage violated the First Amendment rights of visual artists. But it’s LePage’s outlook, not Taylor’s, that is closer to the North Korean mind-set. The events depicted in the murals verifiably happened and can’t be expunged from the record to suit political taste. (That would be true even in the unlikely circumstance that most Americans considered Frances Perkins or Rosie the Riveter to be symbols of totalitarianism.) And the artist presents Maine’s labor history gently, even blandly. There are no devil-horned plutocrats or bloody-cudgeled strikebreakers.
New public artworks are regularly denounced, more often for aesthetic (or fiscal) than political reasons. Taylor’s mural is a rare example of recent government-funded art whose content is preeminent. It’s painted in a flat, functional style that’s intentionally unshowy. Each panel portrays a few figures in the foreground, rendered in muted colors; the backgrounds, often collaged, are in black, gray and white. The technique evokes the streamlined realism of the 1930s, a period when the labor movement was much more vigorous than it is today.
Generally, museums and galleries hang copies of paintings in the gift shop, not in their main display areas. But the labor mural seems well suited to reproduction; its plain compositions, black-outlined figures and simple blocks of color are in the tradition of poster, magazine and postage-stamp illustration. Taylor’s canvases of Maine’s working harbors, several of which are included here, are more colorful and (slightly) looser. The artist clearly gave more thought to the appearance of the labor mural than the governor did to its removal.
If the cash awarded annually to winners of the Trawick Prize came from public funds, skeptics of both government and contemporary art might howl. But the $14,000, given for the past eight years, is provided by Carol Trawick, a Montgomery County arts patron. Her longtime focus is Bethesda, and the survey of this year’s finalists is at that neighborhood’s Artery Plaza Gallery. The competition is open, however, to residents from the entire region. This year’s winner, who earned $10,000, is Mia Feuer of the District; runners-up hail from Baltimore and Richmond.
Feuer’s “The Cairo Tower Collapses/A Fishing Boat in Alexandria Is Constructed” is monumental yet conceptual. It’s a swirling pileup of plastics — styrofoam, fiberglass and polyurethane, among others — that contains Egyptian indigo powder and water from the Nile. It’s echoed by Marty Weishaar’s “Bridge Project,” another large assemblage, which is heavy on spray foam and duct tape. Both pieces teeter, a little awkwardly, between ambitious form and everyday materials.
There’s also a conceptual angle to Caryl Burtner’s work, which took second place, and indeed to most of the other pieces. Burtner offers 52 page-a-day calendar sheets, each dated Friday the 13th and recounting one day’s events. “Friday the 13th” is supplemented by “The Caryl Burtner Archives,” a collection of scrapbooks. Nearby, Warren Craighead III shows pages from his handmade books, and offers pages (and scissors and a stapler) for anyone who wants to build his own.
Books and calendars seem old-fashioned these days, but they’re more modern than Michelle Rogers’s inspiration: sepia-toned antique postcards. The artist assembles beguiling triptychs that match one postcard with two of her own toned-silver prints, whose look simulates the card’s age. Subjects include St. Malo, a rock lighthouse in Cork and a massive Montana copper smelter. Each three-view set include one in which someone wears a bowler hat, and Rogers has hung the hat at the end of the sequence, where it evokes both Magritte and Chaplin. In an ideally conceptual world, gallery-goers could put the hat on and be transported into the silvery past.
More coolly contemporary are Lillian Bayley-Hoover’s paintings and Sofia Silva and Adam Davies’s photographs, all of which depict near-featureless human-made landscapes. Davies’s large-print images contrast nature with concrete and steel barriers. Silva observes the repetitive architectural templates of sheds and garages, and shoots suburban back yards through a white fence that obscures most of what’s beyond. Bayley-Hoover’s view of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport shows mostly tarmac. Cairo, Brittany and Istanbul — the 11 contenders for 2011’s Trawick Prize are clearly a well-traveled bunch. Yet their art doesn’t manifest a particular place so much as reflects its time.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Sept. 20 at VisArts Kaplan Gallery, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville, 301-315-8200, www.visartscenter.org.