One consolation is the Great Depression. Yes, a consolation. I’d never thought of that downturn in our history in an affectionate way—never really thought of it at all except with stupid nostalgia for the music, the men in fedoras, and the bluestockings. And that’s why though I intended to review the Pomona Art Museum’s new show, suddenly: where we live now, I was instead immediately drawn to art history professor and curator Frances Pohl’s Art and Activism in the Twentieth Century show on the ramp. And I never went back.
This exhibit speaks to us now, in particular, and in a national way. And while it begins with poster art that was popular in the 1930’s (when, um, socialist democrats like FDR managed to keep us from falling completely apart), the breadth of the works touch on every activist milestone, no matter how briefly—from the plight of the American Indian to the nation’s very first Earth Day back in 1970. It’s history that bears remembering—especially today. To help place it all in context, Pohl has attached extensive histories to the works regarding the climate in which they were created, the artist’s intention, and the resulting change in our landscape, if any. Viewing them might make you realize what you don’t know about your country (even though you thought you knew everything), and it will certainly strike you that much of this work could be culled from today’s political, economic and social headlines—just change out the names.
If you’re angry that you’re losing your job—or at least that everyone else is, Rockwell Kent’s woodcut Workers of the World, Unite!—a slogan used by the Left Wing Industrial Workers of the World founded in 1905—might ignite a small flame for justice within you; the burly proletariat swinging his shovel against bayonets and their destructive fire that threatens his factory and farm can hardly be argued against.
In the same light, Ben Shahn’s For All These Rights We’ve Just Begun to Fight (1946)—a blue and red poster of a man swathed in banners of text—continues the struggle of the American worker, who, with the aid of those positively evil unions, marches for “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing and a decent home” for his family. Goddamned Communist! Also included are Shahn’s drawings of the three civil rights’ workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and his 1965 anti-war Gandhi poster that includes text from Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger—his unfinished novel of scathing social commentary on the “damned human race.”
Other Depression-era and aftermath pieces such as a photo of eroded soil, a Dust Bowl woodcut, and a lithograph appropriately titled Wastelands, made me wonder if we were headed that way, or if we’re going to be lucky enough to avoid it. Either way, the plight of the GDers became accessible to me more than ever before.
Traveling on through time, June Wayne’s two pieces from her “Dorothy Series”—an homage to her mother who was one of the few female traveling saleswomen during the ’30s and ’40s—shine a light on a different corner of the women’s movement: those who took on a man’s world without firing a shot. In a letter written by her mother and reproduced in the collage Twenty-five Years with the Firm, Dorothy laments the “crude” party she was given on her work anniversary and the insulting pearl necklace—“I feel like Willie Loman,” she writes. Zing.
The 1960s-70s are represented by Robert Rauschenberg’s original Earth Day poster, created the year after the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was enacted due to Rachel Carson’s landmark anti-pollution/pesticide book, Silent Spring. Artist Hung Liu’s collaged portrait of a 19th Century Chinese prostitute, Charles White’s illustration for the Black Panthers’ letter writing campaign to free Angela Davis, and Fritz Scholder’s American Indian wrapped in an American flag remind us of the actual people who struggled for rights and power in those turbulent decades.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this show is the scarcity of Bush jabs—even the most liberal of us are set on wishing that past away, at least for a while. Only Robbie Conal’s Emission Accomplished from 2006, showing our supreme ex-leader as a skeleton jumping around passing skulls like kidney stones makes it in; We’re also briefly reminded of the Reagan Years with Conal’s Sooner or Later Everyone Needs the ACLU (1994), showing a sheepish Ollie North whining for help. Likewise, Enrique Chagoya’s etchings of Ronald Reagan, and Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms and a grimacing Teletubby—all composed to resemble famous Francisco Goya paintings—offer a chuckle over typical GOP/Christian Right bigotry fears: watch out for fag toys!
One of the most inventive pieces I’ve seen in a while is Kim Abeles’ Ralph Blakelock’s Rising Moon in 30 Days of Smog from 2000. Abeles created stencils of Blakelock’s idyllic American scenes (this one is a forest with those teepee huts for tourists) and laid them on Plexiglas on top of her roof. A month later, all the tiny toxins from our air had neatly settled in, creating a finely grained portrait depicting what Pohl ironically points out, “the purity of an untouched landscape using the very cause of its ruin.”
It really doesn’t get any cleverer than that, and one walk through this Americana of what once was, and what might be again someday, should inspire you to cut through the outdated and destructive rhetoric currently being served up and instead actually do something helpful for the human race. It’s not like you can win it without us, after all.
Art and Activism in the Twentieth Century: Selections from the Permanent Collection at Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Wy., Claremont; www.pomona.edu/museum; Hours: Tues.–Fri., 12-5PM; Sat. & Sun., 1–5PM. Closed Mondays. Thru April 12. Free