A realistic look at hard labor

Critic's Corner//Art

Critic's Corner//Art

April 04, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

For more than half a century, Baltimore artist Joseph Sheppard has been exuberantly painting the human figure with a classical verve and an attention to realistic representation worthy of Europe's greatest Old Masters.

Painters of that tradition long recognized the dramatic potential of depictions of the body under extreme physical stress, but it is a subject rarely seen in modern art (George Bellow's exhausted prizefighters are among the notable exceptions).

Sheppard has also painted prizefighters, as well as other athletes, over the course of his long career. But the approximately 50 works in Beast of Burden, an exhibition of some of his recent paintings on view in the Arts Program Gallery at University of Maryland University College, will surprise even those already acquainted with his style of intense realism.

It is often been said that the invention of photography in the early 19th century merely culminated a trend toward increasingly realistic depiction that had been under way since the Renaissance.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Sheppard, a master of the classical-realist style, has turned for inspiration to photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado, Lewis Hine and other chroniclers of the everyday heroism of men and women who spend their lives engaged in heavy manual labor.

The "beasts of burden" in the show's title turn out not to be oxen or mules but human beings whose repetitive and dangerous work taxes them to the limits of human endurance -- gold miners in Chile, child prostitutes in India, boy warriors in Africa, Israel and Palestine.

Sheppard has taken a number of these classic photographs -- such as Dorothea Lange's Depression-era picture of migrant pea pickers and Hine's exhausted coal miners -- and translated the compositions into his own painterly style.

In his handling of these subjects, the exhausted figures emerge from the canvas as living creatures whose aching muscles and wary eyes ask not for pity, but justice.

Nearly a century ago, reformers like Hine documented the dangerous conditions under which children worked 12- and 14-hour shifts in factories and mills. His work eventually prompted passage of the first child-labor laws in the United States.

Yet we tend to forget that Hines' work was never really completed.

When Salgado's essay on the hellish plight of Chilean gold miners was published in the late 1970s, people were shocked that the ruthless exploitation of unskilled labor had been allowed to persist for so long.

Yet today across the world, millions of human beings daily lead lives of almost indescribable hardship working jobs that pay less than a dollar a day.

Neither Hine nor Salgado were able to end such abuses through the sheer force of their art, powerful as it is, and odds are Sheppard's paintings may fail. Yet it's enough that the artist has tried to move our conscience and reawaken our commitment to justice.

"Beast of Burden" runs through June 18 in the Arts Program Gallery at University of Maryland University College, 3501 University Blvd. E. in Adelphi. Call 301-985-7937 or go to umuc.edu/events.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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