American Realism from the WPA Era
Adam Cave Fine Art
Through Feb. 16

More than 200,000 works of art were produced under the auspices of the famed Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) was founded in 1935 as an important plank of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and remained in existence until 1943. Several works produced under this regime can be seen this month in a print show on view at Adam Cave Fine Art.

By government mandate, the WPA bore the challenge of establishing a conceptual framework for art that suited American culture. In other words, it needed to be democratic and accessible, rather than theoretical or elitist. Accordingly, the FAP program is especially known for the myriad public art projects it supported, such as murals and posters placed in post offices, schools, libraries, hospitals and other public settings .

Less well known, however, is the large number of printmakers who participated in the program. Printmaking in the 1930s was an established popular form, and many viewers were already accustomed to handcrafted visual artwork. With this built-in audience in mind, the FAP began providing access to materials, presses, print workshop support and even educational assistance when needed. Printmaking is demanding, process-oriented and often a team effort; its resemblance to traditional guilds only aided the artists’ identification with their working-class subjects.

The printmakers found a kinship with workers who were struggling through the Depression. In this show, you can find images of a construction worker signaling a crane operator, steel workers riding a beam high above a New York skyline, a potter turning a bowl in the studio and farmers tending the rolling hills of their farmland. Well-known artists like Grant Wood, John Marin, Rockwell Kent and Thomas Hart Benton are represented, as well as less familiar names, such as Herschel Levit, Lawrence Kupferman and Reynold Weidenaarwhose image of a locomotive factory is jaw-dropping in its intricacy and line work and is, in fact, worth a visit by itself.

The show is timely with its overtones of WPA optimism situated within perilous economic times that echo our ownalthough today’s audiences might wonder where the optimism is now. Still, Raleigh is working to broaden the presence of art in the community, notably through its belated half-percent for public art initiative, which is already facing criticism in its association with the proposed $205 million Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center. Now is a time to consider what a show of Depression-era art has to tell us about the relationship between artists and their communities.

Back in the day, the FAP got it right. Would that today’s crisis were met with a similar largeness of spirit and purpose. Artists working today deserve the same assistance and opportunities provided in the Great Depression. The fact that we still celebrate the work of the WPA era shows what a worthwhile investment it was.

Works on Paper by Duncan Stuart
Etchings of Historic North Carolina Landmarks by Louis Orr
Gallery C
Through Feb. 3

Two uniquely strong influences on image-making in North Carolina share a double bill this month at Gallery C: recently discovered early work by Duncan Stuart, along with a collection of mid-century etchings by Louis Orr that have an unusual provenance.

Stuart, who taught at N.C. State’s College of Design until 1980, was a Renaissance man with a strong influence on the local art and design worlds after moving to Raleigh in 1948 to help co-found the College of Design at N.C. State University. In those heady early days of the school as it began garnering a strong international reputation in design circles, Stuart stayed busy collaborating with the likes of Buckminster Fuller on technical research into mathematics and geometric structural investigations, as well as producing his own artwork and teaching foundation drawing classes.

Stuart’s drawings at Gallery C, recently unearthed from long-forgotten attic storage in Oklahoma, are a portfolio of charcoal sketches (bolstered by an additional single watercolor). They handily display Stuart’s facility with structure, broad sweeping drawing strokes and strongly faceted Cubist form. All these sketches date from 1937–38, so it is tempting to deduce that these are from a portfolio of student work (perhaps some school application packet, since Stuart rarely signed his work as he did these). Their purpose is not known, so the show remains a bit numinous, much like a behind-the-scenes, personal peek into the artist’s formative process and a footnote to an important career in North Carolina art. Think of these drawings as a foreshadowing of Stuart’s later interests and accomplishments in spatially explorative drawings and even other peripheral pursuits, such as his interest in experimental musical compositions.

The Orr portfolio, a collection of prints of state historical sites, is distinctive not just because of the artist’s deft touch with the etching needle but also for its own mythical origins. One of North Carolina’s greatest patrons of the arts was a Pitt County state senator named Robert Lee Humber; he was a big fan of Orr’s printmaking prowess and practically willed this set of etchings into existence. So committed was Humber to seeing these prints realized that, beginning in 1939, he devoted some 25 years to the project, pressing the printmaker to document various important cultural and historic sites around the state. Orr produced 51 prints of significant sites around the state, including Tryon Palace, the Orton Plantation, the Cupola House in Edenton, Old Salem and the Biltmore House. The prints are also notable for their influence on historic preservation in North Carolina, and images such as “Negro Servants Plantation Quarters in Hillsboro” document antebellum cultural history unfortunately lost soon after Orr’s preparatory sketches were completed. It is also worth noting that Orr captured images of Old Salem and Tryon Palace before extensive renovations commenced in those locations, thus securing important historical documentation and artifacts of state history.

Gallery C, in curating this show of two 20th-century North Carolina artists, has accomplished a similar feat of preservation.