Factory Workers, Black Power, and Jaded Youth in “Social Art in America: Then and Now” at ACA Galleries

America’s history is characterized by periods of great social, economic, and political upheaval. Along the way, artists addressed these challenging times, helping to shape the public’s understanding of the way things were, are, and should be, resulting in a uniquely American art that developed in tandem with the country itself. Just a handful of years into one of the most devastating periods in American history—the sweeping economic tragedy of The Great Depression—ACA Galleries opened for business, with the bold, defiant, and optimistic aim to showcase art made by Americans about Americans, and with a social conscious. This unwavering goal underpins the gallery’s current exhibition, “Social Art in America: Then and Now.” Featuring works by historical and contemporary artists that give voice to those who struggled, fought, and suffered from the 1930s to today, the exhibition includes masters of American Social Realism James Chapin, William Gropper, George Grosz, Philip Evergood, Robert Gwathmey, Joseph Hirsch, Joe Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Jack Levine, and Raphael Soyer, alongside contemporary artists Sue Coe, Luis Jimenez, John Mellencamp (who paints as well as makes music), and Faith Ringgold.

Philip Evergood’s roiling, expressive painting, An American Tragedy (1937), grabs the heart and the eye alike with its scene of a tangled clash between Chicago steel mill workers and police. With sticks and fists the workers confront the guns and clubs of the police. Their unequal fight plays out against a garish yellow industrial landscape, stained crimson by the blood of the fallen workers. Laborers, or, more accurately, the unemployed, also figure prominently in the paintings of Raphael Soyer, whose intimate study for How Long Since You Wrote to Mother (1943) serves as a quieter counterpoint to Evergood’s explosive composition. Tones of brown describe a humble scene of five men seated around a sparse table, their careworn faces etched with the troubles they are loathe to write home about. A patchwork of faces of various races characterizes Faith Ringgold’s monumental painting, American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power (1967), through which she addresses the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing struggle for black equality in America. In John Mellencamp’s A Roomful of Angels (2013), five haloed figures, among them two skeletons, stare morosely out at the viewer—a portrait of jaded youth that serve as an admonition to keep up the fight.

Social Art in America: Then and Now” is on view at ACA Galleries May 3–June 27, 2014.

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