Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s
Reviewed by Alec Clayton
Note: Publication of this review did not happen as planned because of the corona virus pandemic.
During the Roosevelt presidency hundreds of artists were employed by the WPA. They created thousands of works of art even in the sparsely populated and remote Northwest, many of which have since been lost or are located in small, out-of-the way towns where few people see them, and those who do don’t know their significance. TAM’s exhibition uncovers and re-introduces to the public hundreds of these forgotten works.
“TAM is fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” Bullock said.
The large murals were painted on canvas and glued to walls in public buildings and have been carefully removed and installed in the museum for this exhibition. Most of these works are from what is generally thought of as American scene paintings, which glorify working people and small town-life. Typical is Jacob Elshin’s “Miners at Work,” a 5-by-12-foot mural in the Renton, Washington Post Office. It depicts miners hard at work mining coal in a dark and dirty mine shaft. Like so many figures in American scene paintings, the figures appear anonymous, seen from the back or in profile. They appear rounded as in bas relief. The painting is somber and dark and quietly salutes cooperative work.
Also somber is Kenneth Callahan’s, “Dock Scene from the mural cycle Men Who Work the Ships,” depicting men at work on what looks more like girders of buildings than ship building. Like Elshin’s miners, these workers are rounded figures with some bulbous areas of clothing that bear little relation to reality. This painting is a far cry from the energetic and spiritual abstract paintings Callahan became famous for later, other than the angular structure of the beams, which lends dynamism to the composition.
Another artist in the show who later became famous is Morris Graves with his 1934 oil on canvas, “Church at Index.” It is a strong painting of a small-town church with a bridge in the foreground and odd gridwork in the sky. With hints at abstraction, this painting is a harbinger of Graves’s later work.
|Aimee Gorham, Solomon, wood marquetry|
Aimee Gorham made many large-scale decorative panels in wood marquetry for seven schools in Portland, Oregon. The one in this show on loan from Portland Art Museum is called “Solomon.” It is a flattened, icon-like figure of the wise man rendered in an Egyptian style with a strong ray of light angling in from top right and many subtle variations of wood tone and grain.
|Dora Erickson, Dakota Hotel|
The most eerily haunting painting in the exhibition is Dora Erickson’s oil on canvas “Dakota Hotel,” picturing a strange isolated hotel on an empty prairie with five lonely figures sitting on a makeshift wooden porch. The sickly green building against a star-filled night sky gives the image an otherworldly appearance.
The many works of art in this exhibition epitomize an historic era and an approach to art making that played an important role in American art in the first half of the 20th century.
Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s continues through Aug. 16.