Sunday, August 5, 2018

Social-Realist Art

Elizabeth Olds and Wanda Gag Exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2018

Both Elizabeth Olds and Wanda Gag were Minnesota artists active in the 1930s and 1940s, with Gag the better known.  Yet as part of the collective amnesia over this period in history, their art, like the writers of the time, has been neglected.  Today, realist, social realist or modernist art is over-looked in favor of various forms of post-modernism.  The bourgeoisie has skillfully enlisted art in being socially abstruse, shocking, meaningless, socially ignorant or just plain decoration. 

Harlem Musicians - Elizabeth Olds

However, given the social stresses of the present, post-modernism is looking more and more like an expensive and laughable dead-end.

You could say that Olds might be considered a 'social-realist' while Gag could be included as a ‘Regionalist’ in the tradition of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton or John Curry.  Though some of Old's non-political and 'primitive style' work could be considered in that category too.  Of course, the descriptor ‘Regionalist’ is never applied to fundamentally New York artists, who by definition are somehow national.  Both Gag and Olds lived in New York for a time.  Ben Shawn, a New Yorker who painted proletarian themes similar to Benton, is never called a ‘Regionalist.’ Olds and Gag are women, so they are also part of a second neglected group.

This is a great little exhibit which dedicates a room to each artist.  Olds was born in Minneapolis and studied at MCAD many years ago.  Olds’s art was sometimes cartoonish, but socially conscious and politically left.  She was employed by the New Deal’s ‘Public Workers of Art Project’ and the ‘Federal Art Project.’  She was inspired by the muralism of the Mexican painter Jose Orozco.  She used mass production ‘screen printing’ techniques to bring art to many.  Olds made fun of Wall Street and the conformism of ‘white collar boys’ heading to work.  She even cast a satiric eye on gallery-goers worshipping the Italian art classics (“Adoration of the Masters”) and Picasso (“Picasso Study Club”).  She showed black musicians, working-class neighborhoods in New York, steel and meatpacking plants and strong miners. One of her pictures features a dance line of nude women smiling powerfully down on the audience, which was not allowed to be shown due to nudity (“Burlesque”).  Olds reminds one of Hogarth or Daumier sometimes.

Gag, born in New Ulm, is the famous children’s artist of “A Million Cats.”  But she also made fun of consumerism in the midst of the Depression (“Progress”) and like Olds, did covers for the Communist Party-backed “New Masses” magazine (“Skyscraper”).  Gag lived in New York for a time too, painting an alienated stairway at Macys. (“Macy’s Stairway”) but left to live in the country at a house she called ‘Tumble Timbers.’  Her rural upbringing gave her a left-populist outlook, especially appropriate here in Minnesota with its strong Farmer-Labor Party influence.  This also explains the influence of nature in her art and drawings. Cats, snowdrifts, garden tools, fireplaces, lamplight, squash, green peppers, moonlight and trees populate her later work.  I even see bits of R. Crumb in the way she shades objects.

The exhibit is titled: “The Rabble-Rouser and the Homebody,” on the third floor at the MIA.  It continues from March 2018 to December 9, 2018.  There are several other new exhibits worth seeing as well.  Right nearby is the ‘Duluth Living Room”, a recreation of a prairie-style living room looking out on Lake Superior.  Admission is free or with a donation.

Other reviews of art below:  “9.5 Thesis on Art & Class,” “Adios Utopia,” “Art is Dead,” “Ways of Seeing,” “State of the Art,” “The Marxist Theory of Art,” “The Hermitage and Winter Palace,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “The Minneapolis Spectacle,” “Hopper Drawing,” “Women in Soviet Art,” “Frida Kahlo,” “Street Art.” Use these terms in blog search box on upper left.

Red Frog

August 5, 2018

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