Usually when the topic of manufacturing in the U.S. comes up, it is as a lament of jobs lost to automation or outsourcing. Two Ohio-based artists beg to differ.
In “Work/Surface” at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, Matt Lynch and Curtis Goldstein present a suite of 10 scenes of factories operating in Cincinnati today. The 90” x 90” works are made of laser-cut Formica on a wood support. Although they use the term mosaic, they admit it’s a misnomer and that marquetry better describes their technique.1
The artists are paying homage to the 14 mosaics designed by the German-born artist Winold Reiss for the Union Terminal, which were installed in 1933.2 A corollary exhibition, “Winold Reiss: Studies for the Union Terminal Worker Murals,” provides context for the Lynch/Goldstein works.
The artists met when Goldstein studied with Lynch at U. C.’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. What brought them together as collaborators was a shared interest in factory tours and a desire to know how things are made as well as their individual obsessions and interest in experimenting with common man-made materials, such as Formica.
Formica was an inspired choice for this series since it was invented in Cincinnati and is made here. Amy Gath, vice president of North America Marketing with Formica, relates, “When (Lynch) came to us with the opportunity, we really jumped on it.” She continues, “I think it’s exciting to be able to tell the history of Cincinnati’s manufacturing community with a material that is hometown material, over 100 years old.”3
The Reiss mosaics enthralled the artists, and although it was, obviously, impossible to borrow an actual panel, there is a rich trove of Reiss material in the accompanying exhibition. There are source photographs of the mural compositions (although Reiss generally used just one, he did combine them occasionally), gouache and crayon studies, watercolor sketches, and vintage views of the Terminal. There is a suite of 14 offset lithographs produced in 1974 by the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, using Gregory Thorp’s 1971 color photographs that documented the murals. In addition, there are newspaper and magazine articles about the murals. If all of this whets your appetite for the real thing, stroll over to the Duke Energy Convention Center where the mosaics have found their third “permanent” home.4
Just a bit more Reiss history. He and the French artist Pierre Bourdelle competed for the commission by the Terminal architects Fellheimer and Wagner and its interior decorator, Paul Cret, to create a series of murals for the wall spaces above and between the Terminal gates. The brief was to honor the factory workers of the Queen City.
Bourdelle made sketches of idealized workers “against a thin screen of information about the important industries of Cincinnati.”5
Reiss took a different approach as might have been expected by someone who documented the Harlem Renaissance “New Negroes” and Blackfeet and Blood Indians of the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Jeffrey C. Stewart wrote for the winoldreiss.org website, “Reiss believed that by picturing the honor, beauty, and dignity of all peoples, his art could help break down racial prejudices and testify to what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the ‘unity of all creation.’ His wish was to use art to change the world.”
With this attitude Reiss approached the Cincinnati assignment by visiting 17 Cincinnati factories and photographing workers doing their jobs.
Reiss’s and the Lynch and Goldstein duo’s artistic processes are remarkably similar. Like Reiss, the duo begins with photographing the scene and take liberties with the compositions as “needed.” Reiss enlarged his black-and-white photos and then overlaid a grid over the image. Then he made charcoal and crayon studies of the people depicted and refined them. This led to watercolor sketches to show the mosaic artisans the colors he wanted. Finally he made oil paintings, at one-third scale, which were gridded and guided the craftsmen in the execution of his vision.
Although some of Lynch and Goldstein’s working methods are strictly 21stcentury, for example, laser cutting the sections, they start the same way as Reiss did, with photographs. Then Goldstein makes an ink sketch at half-scale, which is scanned and digitized, and he picks the colors to be used. Lynch then cuts out the shapes using a laser, arranges and tapes them down so they can be glued together by hand.
Although Reiss’s focus was on the workers, their identities weren’t known until Cliff Radel at The Enquirerundertook an eight-month project in 2013 to identify them. Radel discovered that the men (and they were all men, the one woman in a source photo was edited out in the final composition) “felt proud about appearing in the mosaics. But they kept quiet about it. None of the workers ever talked at length about being preserved in tile and mortar.”6
One striking difference between Reiss and the Lynch and Goldstein team was that the younger artists identified the workers, but they weren’t given starring roles in their compositions; instead it is the factory environments that shine.
Although the actual mosaics aren’t on view at the Weston, it’s not hard to imagine how dazzling the glass tiles are. Although the architects had proposed that the murals be paintings on canvas, Reiss convinced them that glass tiles would be more effective. He was so committed that he took a cut in his fee to accomplish this.7
Reiss used glass for the figures, but the backgrounds werefresco on concrete, which is much closer in effect to Formica.
Formica is anything but dazzling and compared to the infinite palette of fresco, it is limited although the range of colors and patterns available might seem infinite, especially if you’re choosing one for your kitchen.
I don’t know if the artists aimed to use as many patterns as possible (in the Formicarepresentation, they used 34 colors and patterns). What they didn’t do was match the laminate to sections of the image where it might be “logical” and descriptive.
In some cases, Formica’s patterning takes center stage, to the detriment of the design. This is particularly noticeable in Rookwood Pottery, where the scene is of three workers spraying glaze on greenware prior to firing, and where they used a Jonathan Adler spatter pattern extensively in ways that called attention to itself and not how it illustrates the scene. There is no spatter in the booths, but it’s used to divide the three booths and portions of the floor where it is not clear what it is representing. Also, the first worker, Stephen Fulton’s trousers but not his jacket are spattered. It’s the reverse for the middle worker, Terence Hammond. It makes sense conceptually to use this pattern but it is distracting visually.
I preferred the Perfetti Van Melle (Airheads)scene in the candy-making factory where the Formica patterning is more subdued and used to define sections of the scene instead of overpowering the composition as it does in the Rookwood Pottery piece.
There are some examples of the contemporary duo revisiting factories that Reiss documented—Rookwood Potteryand Procter & Gamble.
In others they have chosen present day companies that echo Reiss’s choices.
Queen City Sausage, established in 1964, can be compared to the older artist’s E. Kahn’s Sons Company, the city’s leading meat packer in the 1930s. There is likely not much difference in their processing methods.
In another pairing, Lynch and Goldstein highlight the advances in technology. They focus on the jet engine turbofan produced by GE Aviation. It dominates the composition and might be seen as a medieval rose window.
In contrast, Reiss showed two workers assembling by hand one of Aeronautical Corporation of America’s, known as Aeronca, popular mass-produced single-engine planes. Using one source photograph, Reiss presents a strong abstract image where the individual parts of the aircraft become hard-edged geometric shapes. Reiss’s plane appears to be stylized but it is faithful to his photograph.
Both documented Procter & Gamble, and the difference between 20th-century P & G and the 21st-century company is marked. Reiss depicted workmen with slabs of Ivory soap. The Lynch/Goldstein team was inspired by the Envision Lab, which enables designers from identical facilities around the world to “collaborate in an immersive virtual environment.”8
In one case, Lynch and Goldstein singled out an industry that had played an important role in Cincinnati’s economy for two centuries–brewing–but wasn’t represented in Reiss’s murals because of Prohibition. The duo chose Rhinegeist,which was founded in 2013, to memorialize.
Lynch and Goldstein took on what was a monumental task, which is to be applauded, and I think the results of their efforts are commendable. But whether it’s the fact that their works standalone and don’t have to relate to their setting as Reiss’s originally had to (although they now installed in a neutral space), or that Formica hasn’t a prayer of having an impact as powerful as the glass tiles of Reiss’s mosaics, they are less compelling than their inspiration. They exist more as documentation of an era than as an aesthetic expression. They lack the wallop of the earlier works.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Work/Surface: Matt Lynch and Curtis Goldstein” and “Winold Reiss: Studies for the Union Terminal Worker Murals,” Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, through August 26, 2018. Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-977-4165, www.westonartgallery.com, [email protected]. Tues.-Sat., 10 am-5:30 pm; Sun. noon-5 pm, open late on Procter & Gamble Hall performance evenings. Admission is free.
1 “Marquetry (also spelled as marqueterie; from the French marqueter, to varigate) is the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures.” Wikipedia.
2 Any discussion of the Reiss murals should note the commonalities between his mosaics, installed in 1933, and Diego Rivera’s 27 frescoes, entitled Detroit Industry done between 1932 and 1933, commissioned by Edsel Ford for the walls of an inner court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
3 Matt Koesters, “Reinterpreting Reiss: Artists use modern techniques for manufacturing murals inspired by noted works,” WCPO, September 6, 2016.
4 When Union Terminal was set for demolition in 1974, the murals were moved to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a logical choice. But then the two terminals where they had been relocated were themselves scheduled for demolition, they were moved to the Duke Energy Convention Center.
5 Daniel Hurley, “A Vision of Cincinnati: The Worker Murals by Winold Reiss,” A Vision of Cincinnati, Summer/Fall 1993.
6 Cliff Radel, “After years of quiet labor, men in the murals are named,” The Enquirer,December 29, 2013, p. J2.
7 Hurley, op. cit.