Andrea Bowers' new work continues her savvy merger of art, social consciousness and activism in unforced and revealing ways. Art with politics in mind is rarely so apt.
Nine graphic works, two videos and an installation fill three spaces at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. The Occupy movement is a primary focus. Bowers ties the past year's protest movement against crushing social and economic inequality with the Industrial Workers of the World, a historic labor movement that flourished in the first half of the 20th century. Three monumental drawings, each 13 feet tall and based on IWW graphics, anchor the rooms.
“A Garland for May Day” appropriates an exquisite 1895 drawing by British socialist and children's book illustrator Walter Crane, whose Arts and Crafts style arose from efforts to repair deep divisions in the social fabric torn by the Industrial Revolution. Using a projector, Bowers explodes a drawing of Libertas, ancient Roman goddess of liberty, surrounded by a lush floral wreath entwined with ribbons that demand “No Child Toilers,” “Solidarity of Labour,” “Art and Enjoyment for All” and more.
Crane's engraved version, made for a weekly socialist newspaper called the Clarion and later picked up by the IWW, used printing as an industrial tool with egalitarian aspirations. Bowers returns to the handmade: Executed with black ink markers, her version is drawn on a large field of collaged scraps of cardboard. These materials conjure a quickly fabricated protest sign at a street rally that, now commanding attention in an art gallery, has been elevated to culturally admired status.
Two more reproduce other pictures featuring Libertas, one laying on the ground and being stepped on by an armored figure of patriotism and the other upright and lighting the darkness with her torch, Statue of Liberty style. On walls adjacent to these monumental allegories, Bowers shows tiny, colored-pencil photo-realist drawings of contemporary women holding protest signs. Their themes are sexual freedom, economic fairness and immigration — or gender, class and ethnicity.
The juxtapositions are wrenching. Bowers' color drawings isolate the latter-day Libertas figures on much larger sheets of plain white paper, setting the stalwart women adrift in a modern style familiar to a society where the once-common language of classical history has been erased. Next to the historical Crane appropriations, these Everywoman figures face an uncertain fate, their commitments infused with quiet poignancy.
Eleven folding tables neatly piled with fliers and leaflets from a wide variety of social justice groups connect the rooms, making a literature-distribution center like those that proliferated at recent Occupy rallies. Videos shot at some of those events play on screens above — the most beautiful a melting abstraction of fluttering banners that slyly updates the elegant ribbon in Crane's graphic.
A related subject is the Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) that has languished in Congress for 11 years. Bowers' simple, brightly colored Dream posters ruminate on the legislation’s relationship to the Occupy movement. In this setting, the sunbursts, chain-link fence and razor-wire adornments in the Dream Act drawings transform borders from statements into questions.
Bowers titles her show “Help the Work Along,” a catchphrase with which IWW labor organizer William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood typically closed his correspondence. The link between Occupy and the Wobblies, as IWW participants were known, is apt: The IWW began as a pointed alternative to top-down labor organizations, much as Occupy has refused traditional leadership structures in favor of consensus building.
Viewers often associate art with leisure, but artists don’t. Bowers’ carefully considered, beautifully articulated exhibition of drawings and related objects underscores that artists are workers too. There's a reason that what an artist makes is called a work of art.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-2117, through Oct. 20. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.vielmetter.comhttp://www.vielmetter.com/