Labor Pains

Clampdown reveals 20 artists' depictions of Rust Belt unrest

America's big economic picture isn't pretty, but it's the one we all have hanging over our heads, if not over the family couch. Most of the news is bad, except when it's ironic. On April 19, as unemployment edged toward 9 percent, McDonald's took on 62,000 new minimum-wage employees as its first-ever "national hiring day" attracted more than 1,000,000 applicants. When it comes to the job market, despair is the new hope.

That thought could be the caption for many of the artworks brought together by curator Greg Ruffing for a show called Clampdown, on display each weekend through May 21 at Zaller Gallery in Collinwood. The show's 20 artists include many of Cleveland's best, which makes it an informal survey of contemporary concerns and approaches. But mainly it's a meditation and discussion centering on labor inequities, especially as they pertain to the Rust Belt.

Ruffing hopes to shed a little light on how artists "can contribute to the larger dialogue about where we are now as a society ... and perhaps most importantly, where we might possibly be heading from here forward."

Based on the imagery presented, the "here forward" part is going to be tough. Randall Tiedman, whose bleakly beautiful solo show In, Around, and About debuted last Friday at Bonfoey Gallery, here depicts a vast, ruined world in an oil-on-paper painting titled "Limbus Patrum." Tiedman's darkly detailed, improvised vista (Limbus Patrum is medieval Catholicism's "Limbo of the Patriarchs," in which Old Testament figures were believed to have been confined prior to the coming of Christ) includes factories, highways, and stadiums of a type we're all familiar with; but here they become dark and strange, as if these features of Ohio's landscape had been transcribed in hell. A heavy sense of foreboding mixes with the scene's Rembrandt-like gravitas.

There are no human forms visible there, or in Youngstown artist Alex Meranto's futuristic oil on panel "Organize Your Labor," in which robotic arms flail along an assembly line, working beneath a cartoon-like bubble that reads "UNITE." But most of Clampdown is actually about people, and their experiences in hard economic times.

Dennis Yurich's digital video projection "My Name Is -----" films the mouths and words of protestors in Columbus during a rally against Ohio's bill limiting collective bargaining rights. Kristen Baumlier reproduces historic labor slogans; her "We Want Bread" is a three-foot-square lightbox installation, remembering a 1912 woolen industry strike and women workers' role in the history of the labor movement. Liz Maugans features a wryly humorous, more personal take on a couple of old problems in her neon sculpture, which spells "Get Laid (Off)." Dante Rodriguez draws two portraits of corporate gluttony titled "Pie Eating Contest," while Scott Goss produces oddly lovely paintings of Cleveland houses and factories on glass, threatened by cloud-like masses of enamel goo.

Benjamin Siegel comes through with an image that looks like a flag for our times: a fist clutching a squeeze bottle of ketchup. But Pittsburgh artist Ross Mantle sums up the exhibit's theme most cogently. His large photo collage "In the Wake of an American Dream" is an array of images depicting people and places found in post-industrial Pennsylvania. Mantle's elegy is a tribute to the works and workers that built a nation, many of whom are foundering in a time of rapid change, hasty decisions, and blatant greed.

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