What is regular?
In Doug McGlumphy’s artist’s statement accompanying his exhibition now showing at the Weston Gallery in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, he states that in this series of sculptures he seeks to “pay tribute to the ordinary worker.” McGlumphy writes, “I felt that little attention has been given to the daily contributions of the ‘regular guy’ ”. If the tone and nature of these statements ring a bit familiar, you may be on to something. The ‘current disenfranchised mood of the American worker’ is such a well worn path in recent national dialogue reflecting political upheaval here in the United States, that it seems a tad overused.
The viewer first encounters this ‘Regular Guy’ gathering of mini-monoliths in the street-level lobby/gallery of the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts. As a group they seem to echo the phallic nature of their surroundings, from tall city buildings just outside the windows, down to other similarly shaped objects alongside of the work in the gallery space.
This particular viewer, on this particular day, had had the privilege of seeing quite a bit of high level contemporary art on Walnut Street at venues such as the 21C Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center. The Weston Art Gallery is a natural stop on the corridor of art and culture that seems to be brewing there and so my hopes were high. As I entered the space, my first impression is that McGlumphy’s sculptures were done a disservice being plopped down in the lobby where they are currently exhibited. And this is a shame, as they could use more space and are well crafted. In the work Resourceful (2008, linoleum, metal, glass, wood) the artist overtly references Appalachian crafts. Given the proper space to further unfold conceptually in this way, the works may have become more compelling, especially this particular one. McGlumphy clearly has a high level of craftsmanship in creating these works as well as a deep regard for the materials he salvages and utilizes in building them.
Well crafted as these sculptures are, however, they are at the same time somewhat standard and unengaging in their execution. Had I not had an assignment to review these works, I might not have opted to spend any time with them at all. While the artist seeks to elevate the ‘regular guy’ in the work, instead he buries them under the weight of a perceived past. McGlumphy “intentionally uses the ancient Egyptian obelisk form for my tributes to the regular guy for its power references” and yet as a viewer, I found the monolith forms he utilizes to be less powerful and exotic, and more funereal and elegiac. In the long run he accesses the form more in keeping with a Roman sense of the monumental, versus an Egyptian elevation of his chosen subjects.
As one born and (somewhat) raised in this area of the Ohio River Valley, my kith and kin are cut of Appalachian, worker-bee stock. My grandfather spent his working life as a steelworker and in many ways, his hard work enabled my family to rise above the systemic poverty we are collectively known for here in this region. I am deeply familiar with the Hillbilly Elegy –styled dialogue our area of the world brings about in people when they speak to or of the working class. McGlumphy’s work currently at the Weston only continues the simplistic, narrow narrative applied to a group of people whose complexity and multifaceted nature are lost in modern conversation.
Which leads me back to my original query: What is regular?
While it is not implicitly stated in the artist’s statement, the assumption here appears to be that ‘regular guy’ alludes to the male, white worker. McGlumphy states: “…our government and its heroes are elevated and memorialized primarily through the efforts and skills of the ordinary citizen.” He brings up a good question here, if I may paraphrase: “Upon whose backs was this country of ours built?” An attempt to elevate the working man (be (s)he black, white or otherwise) in the realm of Fine Art (read: gallery based, statement backed, moneyed Art) is to do a disservice to the very people McGlumphy is attempting to elevate, at least with the work at hand in this particular exhibition.
Important conversations can, and perhaps should, be had in a gallery setting, with compelling contemporary art at the center of a challenging discourse. But with McGlumphy’s ‘disenfranchised American worker’ conveyed in outdated, stylized monuments, we belie the complex nature of any human being in any modern, labeled category by relegating them to a monolithic memorial.