The Great Depression and New Deal occupy a special place in the American historical canon. For one, they mark one of the greatest periods of hardship in American history, and the beginning of a process that would end with the United States becoming the most powerful economic force in the world.
Current news has been rife with New Deal comparisons since the collapse of the subprime loan market. Yet again, the United States is questioning the role of the government, the rights of workers and the country’s collective place on the economic stage.
Given the enduring popularity of the New Deal as a historical topic today and the current economic crisis facing the United States, the Chazen Museum of Art’s new exhibit “1934: A New Deal for Artists” will inevitably generate some interest.
The exhibit features 56 paintings from the Public Works of Art Project, on lease from the Smithsonian. The PWAP was a New Deal program employing artists in endeavors ranging from mural painting to art education. It was the first federal program created in support of the arts.
In addition to the painting display, the exhibit also features an array of programming until it closes April 28. Last Thursday, the Chazen hosted a lecture by Ann Prentice Wegner, curator of drawings at Arkansas Art Center, and a reception afterward. Wegner’s lecture provided ample historical background to frame the works in the exhibit and the place of PWAP in American art history.
Beyond the initial lecture, the Chazen is also hosting New Deal Cinema nights, a poetry reading and a panel discussion near the exhibit’s close.
The exhibit spans the two rooms of the Pleasant T. Rowland Gallery, the closest gallery to the main entrance of the Chazen. With the exception of paintings in the center of the room, pieces are grouped under headings like City Life and Industry.
This thematic unification is certainly welcome, considering the vast scope of subject matter and artistic styles in the exhibit. While the headings to provide a primer for the viewer, subjects still range dramatically in each category. All of the works stand alone in their message, and there appears to be no attempt to select pieces that all tend toward making a certain ideological point.
There is also no single dominant art style in the exhibit. The paintings often reflect larger movements, like the then-solidifying principles of Art Deco design. But some paintings defy conventions of the time, and others have styles distinctive to individual artists.
Interestingly, the descriptions of the paintings also draw attention to different aspects of the piece. Some descriptions focus on the artist, others on historical context and others still leave out any substantial description altogether.
Overall, the pieces appear to be selected as organically as possible, trying to encapsulate the diversity of the PWAP’s artists and their work rather than using all of the pieces to make a greater point.
The variety thus displayed is impressive, but also overwhelming. Despite the unifying headings, viewing the pieces individually instead of trying to integrate them into a single, greater framework makes the exhibit much more digestible. Going from Albright’s grotesque depiction of a housewife in “The Farmer’s Kitchen” to Kelpe’s aptly named “Machinery (Abstract #2)” is a jarring experience. Aesthetically and conceptually it often becomes difficult to connect all of the dots between the pieces.
The value of “1934: A New Deal for Artists” comes in the power of each painting to display a snapshot of life amid the changes of the New Deal. With impressive breadth of styles and subject matter, the exhibit gives visitors of the Chazen a little taste of many takes on one of America’s defining periods.