A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Feb 23, 2011
Walk anywhere near the State Capitol lately and you’re swept into the sounds, signs, motion and passion of the protesters on both sides of the governor’s budget repair bill.
But step into the James Watrous Gallery just down State Street and you’re also confronted with the topic of work in Wisconsin—albeit in a quieter, slower way.
The gallery’s new exhibition, Wisconsin Labor: A Contemporary Portrait, features photographs of workers from around the state created by six photographers. The artists— Tim Abler, Dick Blau, David Heberlein, Julie Lindemann, John Shimon and Jamie Young—were commissioned in 2007 to create “portraits” of contemporary labor for the Department of Workforce Development.
The photographers’ work not only covers the state geographically; the images also represent a wide variety of work that takes place within it. They depict men, women and even children farming, working at hamburger joints and small resorts, making neckties, selling bikes, spray-painting pipes, working in factories and more.
Some of the subjects pose for the camera; others are busy at their jobs and seem unaware of the artists’ presence.
Blau’s photographs of workers in southeast Wisconsin offer the most close-up views of manual labor: arm muscles tense, hands dirty, faces tight with concentration. In a placard hanging on a wall, Blau explains the basis of his photographs: “There is a moment in the physical act of work, a place of fusion where mind and body mesh, where worker, tool, and object tangle. This confluence of mental acuity and bodily motion is one of our finest accomplishments.”
Farther down the gallery, Abler’s photographs of north-central Wisconsin are beautifully and crisply detailed. Viewers see the textures of his subjects’ faces and the expressions in their eyes.
The photographers of Wisconsin Labor don’t romanticize workers. But they do show their subjects with a straightforwardness and respect that imbues them with a sense of dignity.
When visitors look at the workers’ faces, we’re transported into their worlds. We get a glimpse of their daily lives, their struggles and worries, triumphs and reprieves, demands and tolls. For a moment, each of us can’t help but think of what a day in their shoes would be like—whether we’d want it, whether we could do it.
No matter your politics, regardless what’s going on in the world, that’s not a bad experience to have.
Wisconsin Labor runs through April 10 at the James Watrous Gallery. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.
Photos courtesy of the James Watrous Gallery.