Labor's Love 

At Work: The Art of California Labor

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
{mosimage}“No somos criminales, somos trabajadores!” chanted many of the hundreds of thousands of Angelenos who took to the streets on May 11 in protest of xenophobic politics. “We are not criminals, we are workers!” What a timely context, then, for “At Work — The Art of California Labor,” an exhibition initially organized by San Francisco State University and the California Historical Society and now at the Pico House Gallery on Olvera Street. It’s a story of persistent struggle, interrupted by crucial moments of triumph, and “At Work” tells it well.

Some of the labor movement’s artistic icons — including Diego Rivera, Dorothea Lange and Tina Modotti — are cornerstones of the exhibition. Lange’s Kaiser Shipyard, Shift Change 3:30 (1942) stares down a ragged lot of men and women (think grease-smeared denim and mangled tin lunch pails) leaving work after spending their day assembling ships bound for World War II. An untitled photograph from Leonard Nadel’s Bracero Series (1956) shows young field hands with well-sunned, labor-toned bodies waiting in line to be sprayed with a toxic layer of pesticides before starting their shift.

The show’s 30 contemporary works include Nicole Miller’s portrait Dishwasher (2006), which takes us from the fields and into the dimly lit kitchen of an L.A. restaurant, where a man stands before a machine washer with his broad back turned, his face and individuality concealed. Malaquias Montoya’s screen print A Portrait of Poverty is less subtle: Silhouettes of field workers labor beneath a burning sky that buzzes with helicopters and barbed wire above an ominous, stenciled banner that reads GLOBALIZATION.

As affecting as all these works are individually, what is perhaps more compelling is the enduring history that binds them together — inequality, disrespect, oppression, yet progress.

The timeless appeal of “At Work” was made most evident by a group of squirming middle schoolers who cruised through the exhibition, past Rivera, oblivious to Lange, but stopped and crowded around photographs of the recent immigration protests by Emilio Flores and Armando Arorizo. In his excitement, one boy, sure that he had spotted himself in Flores’ La Gran Marcha, nearly poked the photo with an outstretched finger. Only then did the ice cream truck waiting outside seem suddenly unimportant.

AT WORK: The Art of California Labor | Pico House Gallery at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, 424 N. Main St. at Olvera St., dwntwn. | Through August 14

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