Artists often chronicle society. The new exhibit at Wichita Art Museum is no exception. The museum is demonstrating the resiliency and the plight of the worker in the new exhibit “Occupy Art: Protest and Empathy for the Worker.”
Through the use of 70 paintings, prints and sculptures that span 150 years, the museum’s guest curator, Rachel Epp Buller, an art professor at Bethel College, has gathered examples of the worker from the museum’s collection.
“Again and again, artists are drawn to the image of the worker,” Buller said. “I think it is important to show how artists have responded to the lives of everyday people.”
Buller, who received her doctorate from the University of Kansas, examined WAM’s collection last spring and realized many of the pieces in the permanent collection pertain to the image of the worker – whether on a Kansas wheat field or in a Midwestern factory.
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By depicting the common man, or recently what has been labeled the 99 percent, the show cuts across borders, she said.
Four prints by German expressionist Kaethe Kollwitz (1867-1945) are part of the exhibit. Kollwitz was drawn to images of protest. By using her artwork for social criticism, Kollwitz depicted injustice. “Death, From the Weaver’s Cycle” and “Sharpening the Scythe” are two of her works included in the exhibit.
“Artists have always tried to respond to what is going on both socially and politically,” Buller said. “They try to form a connection to make their work seem relevant.”
Lithuanian-born social realism artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was concerned with injustice. In 1902, his father was exiled to Siberia. When he was 8, Shahn immigrated to New York City. Many of his works speak of unsafe working conditions. He also focused on rural and urban poverty and the atrocities committed in concentration camps.
Buller said that Shahn and other artists’ pieces give the observer a sense of the difficulties faced by the worker. From factory workers to street vendors to miners, Occupy Art depicts men, women and children in agrarian and industrial settings. Many of the works in the exhibit come from the Depression era. Several pieces are from Midwestern artists.
A few recent gifts to the museum by private donors and a foundation are also in the exhibit. A print by Elizabeth Catlett titled “Man" and a book of pop-up silhouettes by artist Kara Walker were gifted in the last decade. Also, a Ben Shahn print, "We French Workers Warn You," was donated in 2002 by WAM’s former director, Novelene Ross.
“This exhibit presents an opportunity to get some gems up,” said Patricia McDonnell, the museum’s director. “They are wonderful works of art. Artists for a long, long time have had a heart for the dignity of people’s work.”
On Jan. 24, Buller, who is also the regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project and the author of the recently released book “Reconciling Art and Mothering,” will speak about the historical context of the life and work of the exhibit’s artists.