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Exhibition at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center features "Men at Work"
Stanford artist Kristina Branch captures the gritty freshness of construction sites in Men at Work, her latest exhibition on view through Feb. 10 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
Twenty-seven paintings hang in the intimate Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery, and they transform the space into an aesthetic vision of a work site; you stand amid artistically rendered metallic scaffolding and dusty, stucco walls. Construction, as depicted by Branch, is a world of lime-green portable toilets, sandy dirt, dark-yellow tractors, wet cement and, of course, the workers themselves, outfitted in solid colors overalls, blue jeans, white shirts, hard hats and reflective safety vests.
Branch, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History, employs a palette reminiscent of the colors that soak Cezanne's Provençal mountains in sunlight but keep the light unobtrusive.
And while the workers get top billing in the exhibition's title, they are not what initially stand out upon walking into the gallery. Your eyes are drawn first to the white cab of a big rig. Only upon moving closer to this painting, on the far wall, do you see the somewhat abstract figure of a man partially hidden by one of the truck's enormous, vertical exhaust pipes. In most of the other paintings, the men stand in relief against a backdrop of giant machines and edifices. Despite a reputation for machismo, construction workers in the paintings sometimes look vulnerable. It's an effect Branch said she was hoping to achieve.
Viewers should feel like voyeurs, peering at a construction site through a fence or hole, she said during an interview last week in the gallery.
"I want you to have an experience similar to the one I had when I was there to sense the vulnerability of these small figures within this precarious world," she said. "They're doing something that takes a lot of skill, and there was so much of an unselfconscious confidence in the face of quite monumental elements."
In this world of loud noise and constant labor, even inanimate objects seem alive. A motionless blue wheelbarrow crackles with kinetic energy like a dancer waiting for a partner to hoist and twirl her into the frenetic pace of the ballroom.
Branch said she originally set out to focus on construction sites rather than the workers. She said she was attracted to the setting "because it seemed exotic vast, noisy, dusty and populated by powerful cranes, lumbering trucks and equipment I knew little or nothing about. It was unfamiliar territory, almost exclusively male, with 'Keep Out' signs posted all around it."
In the course of the project, she visited a half-dozen construction sites on the West Coast.
"My work in the past has been inspired by landscape, particularly areas where urban and rural motifs intersected for example, the waterfront where architectural elements break up expanses of sky and sea," she said. "Trucks, cars and boats often were focal points in such spaces. To paint the landscape of the construction site was a natural next step. Its perspectives, unusual shapes and structures intrigued me, as did its palette of browns, grays and ochers punctuated by construction tape and traffic cones."
Branch initially worked in her van using a special easel. What began as a purely voyeuristic exercise, however, gradually became more interactive. Curious workers began to pay her visits. "'Who's paying you to do this?' I heard. And 'Do I have to wear this same shirt tomorrow?'" Branch said.
Eventually Branch was granted permission to work on two of the sites. She wore a hard hat and ate lunch when the workers did. "More and more, I began to get intrigued by the men themselves. I was just so curious about their life and their activities," Branch said. "They'd look up and see me occasionally, and I would hold the painting up so they could see it themselves. It was a great place to work."
By John Sanford