Labor Day art

Celebrating honest pay for honest work

Art for Labor Day: Working art, for and about working people

Jacob Lawrence, “Carpenters,” 1977, lithograph, 21.75 x 26 inches, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem

MONDAY IS LABOR DAY (AND, IN CANADA, LABOUR DAY), a day first celebrated in the United States in 1882 and first declared a federal holiday in 1894. It honors not only the work that people do but also the labor movement that grew slowly and gained strength through much of the 20th century, guaranteeing such advances as child labor laws, a forty-hour work week, and occupational safety laws, before losing much of its bargaining power in the past forty-odd years, and increasingly so in the gig economy. Yet labor remains a force, and Labor Day stands for much more than just a three-day weekend (the “weekend” being another triumph of the labor movement).

Artists are of course laborers, too – highly skilled laborers – and often enough labor has been the focus of their work. For the past two years in early September we’ve gathered a few images of art about labor from Pacific Northwest collections or public spaces.

Continues…

The Week: TBA or not TBA?

As the contemporary arts festival surges onto an already bulging September calendar, that is the question.

A NEW CROP OF APPLES IS HITTING THE PRODUCE STANDS. Lush ripe tomatoes are overflowing gardens and markets. Cukes are ready for pickling. America’s schoolchildren, ready or not, are back in the saddle again. And today, for the 17th year, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA Festival kicks off again. “TBA” stands for “Time-Based Art,” which mainly means performance – art that takes place in a set period of time, in front of an audience – although visual art’s part of the mix, too. And the time is very contemporary: the art of today, for good and sometimes ill. As PICA puts it, the festival, which runs in venues around Portland through Sept. 15, “gathers artists and audiences from around the world” for eleven days of “contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” 

Eiko Otake. Photo courtesy Joseph Scheer, IEA at NYSCC, via PICA


Over the years TBA’s had a lot of hits and a lot of misses. Its emphasis on non-traditional and resolutely experimental work can elevate the narcissistic and the sloppy. It can also champion fresh art of astonishing provocation and beauty, as it did in the festival’s very first incarnation, on Sept. 11, 2003, when, on the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the great butoh-influenced performers Eiko and Koma stunned their Portland audience with an outdoor performance in and around the water at Jamison Square, beneath a darkening sky. That performance, eloquently titled Offering, was sad, deep, ghostlike, hopeful, profound. “It strikes me, on this anniversary of death, that the world’s war-makers would detest this dance, which is about deep truths that can’t be glossed or managed,” I wrote at the time. “One watches an invisible flight of ideas. It is the holy and the profane, inseparable, wrapped into one. A mystery.”

The good news is that Eiko Otake is back at TBA for the first time since that 2003 performance, and she’ll be a busy part of things. You can see her tonight, at TBA’s opening reception, in her evolving piece A Body in Places, based on her return to post-nuclear disaster Fukushima. Prints and video works will also be on view through Oct. 24 at PNCA’s 511 Gallery. There’ll be a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life, on Sept. 9. She’ll perform her Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable, with several collaborators, Sep. 12-14. And in a free event on Sept. 13, she’ll be in conversation with chroreographer Linda K. Johnson and PICA Artistic Director Kristan Kennedy.

 

Continues…

For Labor Day, the art of work

As the labor movement struggles against new challenges, a look at art that reveals the highs and lows of work and its significance in life

Monday is Labor Day, the 126th in the nation’s history, and amid the barbecues, ball games, and big-box-store sales of the three-day holiday it’s good to take a little time to remember what it’s all about. As we wrote last year at this time, Labor Day is “the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.”

Gordon W. Gilkey, 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, 1937, watercolor on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Portland Art Museum

Artists, of course, are workers in good standing. And over the years countless painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers have created art depicting the centrality of work to human civilization. Sometimes the art is mainly documentary. Sometimes it’s psychologically or emotionally incisive. Sometimes it’s art of advocacy. We’ve gathered a small selection of art that in one way or another reflects the significance of work in our lives, grappling with the tolls it takes, the gifts it gives, and its relationship to a good and honest and fair way of life – precisely the things that Labor Day memorializes. Several of the works are in the permanent collections of Oregon museums. A pair of public outdoor works can be found to the north, in Seattle and Centralia, Washington. And we’ve pulled one photograph from the collections of the Library of Congress in the nation’s capital. 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, for instance, celebrates the workers who build the brawling, muscular cities where so many of us live. And as a bonus, it’s an early work by Gordon Gilkey, who went on to become a Monuments Man, rescuing European art from Nazis during World War II, and then became a legendary teacher, collector, curator, and artist in Oregon: The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection forms the core of the Portland Art Museum’s superb collection of prints and drawings.

Continues…