Midwest Murals at Grohmann Museum
Few persons view art with a totally unbiased eye. Though critics may claim to do so, it’s
almost impossible. I knew prior to viewing the works of American artists Joe Jones (1909-1963) and J.B.Turnbull (1909-1976) that I’d be dazzled by Midwest Murals, on loan from the Haggerty Museum of Art. Floor two of the Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway, now through Dec. 6, is where to head.
My bias is a yearning for the Midwest-land-of-farms where my ancestors settled in the mid-1880s. It’s the widescreen Technicolor land of valleys and blue skies, but my memory lies. Farming has always been hard scrabble, a wrestling match with the elements.
Jones and Turnbull took their marching orders from the proprietor of a St. Louis liquor store, who, with the demise of Prohibition, had cash aplenty to hire painters to sanitize late ’30s Midwestern work scenes. The long, narrow format signaled they were customized for the long, narrow spaces above his shelves and shelves of booze, indeed, Ready for Action checks in at 228 inches of oil on canvas.
The elongated format suggests an America seen through a stereoscope where sky, land,
man and mule meld in harmony. Though the scenes depict multiple mules and multiple workers under endless skies (doesn’t it ever rain in Missouri?), there lurks an element of despair. It’s hard to shake the knowing that my rural hometown is now mostly boarded and bare. So much for “amber waves of grain.”
The paintings lack evidence of sweat or stress, nor are there black laborers in sight. This isn’t to say that the artists were blind to the problems of workers (or artists’ causes), indeed, both men were radical social activists who later moved
east to forge their “workers’ rights” agenda. The fee for the murals may have been their ticket out of the St. Louis area. In any event, they pursued their unsanitized, radical social activism on the East Coast where folks were less uptight.
For more on the back story, Curtis L. Carter, Ph.D., professor of aesthetics and philosophy at Marquette University, will offer his expert take on the murals. He’s the founding director of the Haggerty Museum and a lively speaker. Tune in Friday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. Visit the MSOE website for more information.
Midwest Murals by Joe Jones and J.B. Turnbull
Through Dec. 6
Grohmann Museum, MSOE
1000 N. Broadway, Milwaukee
Monday –Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, Noon to 6 p.m.
Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.