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Review: Art meets activism in Andrea Bowers’ ‘Triumph of Labor’ at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Andrea Bowers' sign, "Education Should Be Free," is made from electric lights in cut-up cardboard shipping boxes.
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

A historical face-off is the congenial centerpiece of Andrea Bowers’ exhibition of recent work at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. On one side of the room is an adaptation of a late-19th century graphic, blown up to monumental scale. On the other is a wall mural made from 168 color snapshots.

The subject of both is May Day, a traditional springtime festival that, given associations with nature’s potential productivity, merged into a celebration of industrial age workers by international trade unions more than a century ago. Bowers has used labor images by British Arts and Crafts illustrator Walter Crane before; here it is his epic parade of allegorical figures and people who work with their hands, “The Triumph of Labor.”

She has transferred the image — by hand — in black paint onto a surface 22 feet wide and made from flattened shipping boxes. The shipment now delivers an artistic message.

Across the way, inkjet photographic prints of mostly smiling marchers at social justice events are pinned to cover two walls. Virtually every person shown carries a sign in support of their cause, making the photo mural a big sign composed of smaller signs. The sly metaphor of a union is apt.

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Nearby, five delicate pencil drawings isolate sign-wielding individuals on sheets of white paper, while a folding table is stacked with printouts of email correspondence concerning pay negotiations for adjunct teachers at a local art school. Handmade signs, after all, are the province of artists — including Bowers.

One compelling example is an electric wall-sign. The housing for its rainbow of shifting colored lights is likewise cobbled together from cardboard packing boxes for beer, home appliances, soda and other domestic supplies.

“Education should be free,” the sign declares in dancing lights, reiterating a prominent political issue today.

In the show’s May Day context, this declaration resonates with current tensions around educational philosophy. Is education primarily a tool for enhancing a society of free people, or is it for training workers? In Bowers’ gifted hands, the answers would not seem to be mutually exclusive.

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Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Through July 9. Closed Sunday and Monday. (310) 837-2117, www.vielmetter.com

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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Twitter @KnightLAT


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