Jackelyn Wicklund
Art for our time

Carlos Cortéz and Allied Artists at WPCA

By - Apr 15th, 2011 04:00 am

It’s an exciting time to be a Wisconsinite.

For weeks, all eyes were on us as people from across the state assembled in Madison to stand up for the rights of state workers. It is exactly this kind of excitement and solidarity that Carlos Cortéz hoped to inspire with his famous prints, many of which are now on display at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.

Cortéz, born in Milwaukee in 1923 to a German mother and Mexican father, spent his life creating art to inspire people to many causes, including anti-war, anti-US intervention, pro-Chicano movement, and most importantly, pro-worker.  The son of a Wobbly union organizer, he made much of his work for the Industrial Workers of the World-or IWW.  He died in Chicago in 2005.

Carlos Cortéz and Allied Artists features a wealth of Cortéz’s prints, mostly borrowed from UW-Whitewater’s Crossman Collection, along with prints inspired by his work.  The artists contributing to the show come largely from two artist collectives, Justseeds and World War 3 – Illustrated, both of which are known for work that addresses issues of social justice, labor, anti-capitalism and human rights.

“La Lucha” by Carlos Cortez

“We had absolutely no idea that the content of this show would be precisely relevant to our present situation in Wisconsin … this massive uprising against the Republicans’ assault on working people and our families,” says co-curator Susan Simensky Bietila of the exhibition’s impeccable timing.

That timing  and the current political climate is reflected in many of the show’s pieces. Justseeds artists Colin Matthes and Nicolas Lampert have work in the show, along with several collaborative  prints like Workers of Wisconsin Unite!, the text of which continues, ”You have nothing to lose but your governor!”

The print is an homage to Cortéz’s Draftees of the World Unite! print from 1965 (the text of that print continues, “you have nothing to lose but your generals!). Cortez was famously imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II, saying that he “refused to shoot at fellow draftees.”

Matthes’ prints Union Made and Occupation of the Capital in Madison –both of which were also used as protest signs during the marches in Madison– are featured, both prints simplistic in design, but powerful in message. Matthes also recently participated in Sky High Gallery’s Temporary Mural project with a piece honoring Cortez’s life and work.

Lampert contributed a print called Wisconsin Workers United Against Union-busting, depicting a large badger (representing Wisconsin’s labor force) ready to pounce on a rat (an international symbol that represents union-busting) labeled “Gov. Walker” and “Koch Brothers.” The print is available for $12.

“Carlos [Cortéz] was a huge influence for me. He is a hero to many of the artists in Justseeds. We were drawn to how his politics and calls for justice were at the forefront of his work,” says Lampert.  “We were also inspired by how he made his prints affordable to working class people. Carlos never made numbered editions of his prints because he did not want them to be rare art objects. Instead, he wanted them to hang in the homes of working class people and to serve the movement. Justseeds followed his lead by pricing most of our work at $20 and lower.”

Prints by Colin Matthes of Justseeds.

The impact of Cortéz’s work on a new generation of activists/artists is evident throughout the exhibition. Rene Arceo has several pieces in the show, including one titled Bushism, stylistically inpsired by Cortéz’s Tlazolteotl. Both pieces are hung side-by-side, both featuring images of a body split, half skin-covered and half skeleton. Nicole Schulman channels Cortéz’s Joe Hill with Frank Little, placed near Cortez’s famous linocut.

While drawing on historical context, many works in the exhibition highlight very real issues of our time — poverty, gender struggles and of course, the plight of the labor movement. Co-curator Susan Simensky Bietila has a few pieces in the show, including one called Stop Evictions-Capitalism Breaks my Heart, depicting two women being dragged from a home by policemen.  Another Nicole Schulman piece, titled You Have the Right to Organize, features a female Starbucks employee wearing an IWW hat, wrench in hand, her  arm out in a way that’s reminiscent of the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster.

“The show is ideally timed. It connects working-class struggles of the past to the present and champions immigrant rights and worker solidarity…if Carlos were alive today he would be in the streets of Milwaukee and Madison making his voice heard, ” says Lampert.

While marching and protest are powerful tools, Cortéz believed that to affect real change, one has to take action beyond just marching in the streets.

“One of his most famous prints reads ‘Its All Ours With the General Strike,'” Lampert says, adding,  “Carlos would remind demonstrators not to be cautious or moderate. He would implore workers to think beyond the ballot box and to seize this opportunity to create real change.”

Carlos Cortéz and Allied Artists is currently on view at WPCA, 839 S. 5th st., with a Gallery Night reception from 5-9 pm on April 15. It runs until May 14.

Categories: Art, Politics

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