This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2010 - Now at the Kemper Art Museum, two fascinating exhibitions come at the subject of labor from divergent starting points.
Allison Smith’s “Needle Work” includes research the artist has done into masks and face coverings of all kinds — gas masks, veils, fashion facewear and sinister costumes — and her “authentic reproductions” of selected examples. The show foregrounds the labor put into recreating these odd, terrifying things, and showcases them with labels in vitrines that recall anthropological exhibition cases.
For “Lunch Break,” Sharon Lockhart spent a year with work crews at the Bath Iron Works, a shipbuilding factory in Maine. In films and still photos, she portrays the workers but not the work — we see them on break, leaving the factory or view their ancient lunch boxes.
Her photos and films are elegiac, paeans to a particular breed of skilled manual laborer that is disappearing in this country.
They also take their place among works by the 19th century Lumiere Brothers and contemporary photo-conceptualist Allan Sekula as significant documents of the human experiences of working-class men and women.
Ivy Cooper, a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon's art critic.