Time appears to be linear, but the approximately 40 prints in the Weisman Art Museum exhibit "Pressing Issues: Printmaking as Social Justice in the 1930s United States" prove that art made nearly a century ago can reflect questions still plaguing America today.
Arranged clockwise in a large, darkened gallery to ensure adequate social distancing, the artwork was commissioned through the New Deal, a program instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt after his inauguration in 1933, to stabilize the economy and "restore prosperity" during the Great Depression.
Making this connection to the past doesn't seem so far off, considering the unemployment picture just a year ago — in April 2020, a month after the pandemic set in, jobless rates in all 50 states even exceeded the peaks reached in the Great Recession of 2007-09.
The exhibit was organized by Kathryn Koca Polite, assistant curator at the University of Illinois' Krannert Art Museum, where it debuted last fall. It's thematically organized around labor issues, gender inequity, economic disparity, racialized violence and reactions to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s.
Leroy Flint's etching "Strikebreakers" shows a group of five men wearing caps and holding bats, angrily walking forward. As U.S. labor organizations tried to organize workers during the Depression, their actions were often denounced as an attempt to destroy democracy, and met with violent resistance by hired thugs.
Michael J. Gallagher's lithograph "Mine Accident," circa 1935, portraying three beefy men carrying out an injured worker, has an almost Tom of Finland vibe to it, filled with beefy male sex appeal. In Jacob Kainen's "Tenement Fire," a burning building gets sprayed with water from the street, reminiscent of photographs of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.
Nan Lurie's lithograph "Technological Improvements" shows a line of African American men outside a building, seemingly unaware of a sign around the corner that reads "No Help Wanted." The title of the piece pokes fun at how technology could be used to eliminate jobs.
As the show continues and the dates change to the early 1940s, the growing fear of fascism and World War II drifts into the frame. In Joseph Leboit's "Refugees," two women and a child wander, hunched over, through fragmented lands filled with brambly branches and barely standing facades of houses.
The Weisman smartly includes a trigger warning for a single wall displaying two linocuts of lynching scenes by African American artist Hale Woodruff, calling out the racism of Southern whites who called themselves Christian but committed horrifying acts of evil.
As the show winds around the final wall, visitors are met with portrayals of women at work, at a time when they were mainly confined to gendered positions such as teacher or nurse, or relegated to unskilled manufacturing jobs.
There is a curious exception, however. Kyra Markham's lithograph "Burlycue" portrays the backroom of a cabaret bar filled with scantily clad women wearing Marlene Dietrich-esque top hats. It's like a scene out of the film "Cabaret," but in fact, according to the wall label, many women found employment in the "entertainment industry" during the Great Depression.
The show ends with a depressing lithograph by Ida Abelman titled "Child Labor," circa 1934-43. On top, we see three girls sewing in a textile mill; on the bottom a white boy and a Black boy pick vegetables.
At times this exhibition hits too close to home, a reminder that if nothing changes, history can — and will — repeat itself.
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437
Pressing Issues: Printmaking as Social Justice in the 1930s United States
Where: Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, Mpls.
When: Noon-5 p.m. Thu.-Sun. through May 16. No reservations required.
Info: 612-625-9494 or wam.umn.edu.