The behind-the-scenes look seems highly appropriate given the show’s theme, described as examining “the role of contemporary artists to consider and question the many ways economic inequality and labor have shaped American life past and present.” In short, this is about American labor in its many forms, from the factory to the storefront, from the coal mines to the hair salon, and absolutely everywhere in between.
The show, which features works by 35 “established and mid-career contemporary artists and filmmakers,” also seeks to “probe the connections between art, economy, and labor” within the larger historical relationship between CMOA, its founder and patron, 19th-century American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and the city overall. Carnegie, who made his fortune off the toil of steelworkers, created CMOA in 1886 as a way to “bring the world” to the people of Pittsburgh.
Working Thought curator Eric Crosby, who also serves as the museum’s Henry J. Heinz II director, describes the museum as a “readymade frame” for the exhibition, which is intended to take root there in site-specific ways. As a result, a combination of new commissions and loans are presented alongside works from the museum’s permanent collection, positioning the permanent pieces in a “new light and within the context of the history of Pittsburgh as a capital of industry.”
One immediately noticeable aspect is the grandness of many of the works, as if they are literally trying to capture the overwhelming ceaselessness of labor in capitalist America. Beside Winant’s eye-boggling collage, which contains hundreds upon hundreds of magazine and news clippings depicting women in various states of work, is the newly commissioned “Irrational Rest” by Jessica Vaughn, a towering, jungle gym-like structure outfitted with squares of LED lights that dim and brighten as the day goes on. The squares, which become brightest at night, are meant to mimic the harsh, constant lights of processing facilities like Amazon fulfillment centers, commenting on how these jobs disrupt the natural rhythms of life in the name of profit.
The enormity continues in works like Aaron Spangler’s “The Band Played the Night of the Johnstown Flood,” a carved wood relief meant to capture the 1889 man-made event that killed over 2,200 people, and Andrea Bowers’ “Triumph of Labor,” an expansive cardboard work titled after Walter Crane’s 1891 cartoon dedicated to “the wage-workers of all countries.”
Like Bowers, much of the exhibition showcases materials actually used in the jobs honored here, from the rusted wrenches, rebar, and other bits of Joe Minter’s “Where Is My Hammer?” sculpture to Theaster Gates’ two Long Run canvases, made with the tar the artist’s dad used in his roofing business.
Most notable is “BLACKBODY, WHITE NOISE” by Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson and “Space in Between” by Mexican-American artist Margarita Cabrera. Robinson produced a pair of cubes made of cast iron from the decommissioned Carrie Blast Furnaces, a relic of Pittsburgh’s once dominant steel industry. The cubes act as speakers for audio combining the sound of the metal heating under the sun with commentary on “racial politics and social injustices.” In one of the most eye-catching, and sobering works on display, Cabrera uses military-green border patrol uniforms to create a series of cacti, all produced in collaboration with Casa San Jose, a resource center for Pittsburgh’s Latino immigrant population.
Much of the show speaks more directly to the issues of American workers and those who fought for labor rights, including a series of black-and-white photographs by Jill Freedman, which capture the Poor People’s Campaign, a 1968 march on Washington, D.C., demanding that the government address the employment and housing problems of low-income Americans. Adding to the show’s powerful photographic imagery is work by Fred Lonidier, whose long, text-heavy piece captures a bygone era in the country when nearly every sector was unionized (even horse-shoers had a union).
Not to be overlooked are the many films on display, the standout being a more playful 1992 work depicting a “barge ballet” on the Allegheny River. In addition to artist and curator conversations and other programming, the museum will also present a series of labor-driven film screenings, including Barbara Kopple’s acclaimed 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA and Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy, Pittsburgh filmmaker Tony Buba’s look at the city’s steel industry in 1988.
Working Thought highlights an issue that has defined America, from its early days and dependance on slave labor, to the Great Resignation and re-energized union movement. It serves as a reminder that even in the glamorous, seemingly effortless world of art are people hammering, taping, lifting, and measuring to make shows like Working Thought happen. It should be noted that many CMOA staff, like those in other industries across Pittsburgh and the country, have also moved to unionize, adding an awkward undercurrent to this latest show.