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Men at Work: Paintings by Kristina Branch

July 20 through September 28, 2003

 

This series of small oil paintings by Kristina Branch focuses closely on the activity of the construction site chronicling the various phases and activities involved in the creating of the urban landscape. Her work taps into an almost voyeuristic human fascination with watching other people build or make something. Branch said she was attracted by the setting "because it seemed exotic--vast, noisy, dusty and populated by powerful cranes, lumbering trucks" almost exclusively male with 'Keep Out' signs posted all around it. Branch is an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University in California. She spends a part of each summer at her family's property near Boothbay Harbor, Maine.(right : © Kristina Branch)

 

Introduction and acknowledgements to catalogue:

 

Kristina Branch is a highly respected artist and Associate Professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where she lives with her husband, Douglas Mackay and their twins, Alexander and Zoe. She spends a part of each summer on Wall Point, overlooking Linekin Bay, Maine, where the Branch family has operated a sailing camp since 1919. The area has long been a source of inspiration for her work and thus allows Maine to lay claim, at least in some small measure, to her evolution as an artist.

This exhibition is an expanded version of Men at Work: Paintings by Kristina Branch first shown at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University. As a landscape painter, Branch has, in the past, concentrated primarily on representing sites where natural and urban locations intersect. However, this series of small paintings has a somewhat different focus that sprang from an accidental discovery Branch made when she set out to paint a construction site in San Francisco.

Initially she was attracted to the architecture of the site with its strong vertical lines and grids of scaffolding. But as she began to work her attention was drawn more to the figures of the construction workers moving about the site as they engaged in a variety of different tasks. The appeal of these resulting images of men at work is grounded in large part in the almost voyeuristic fascination we have in observing other people make or build something.

Branch's paintings belong to a long and venerable tradition of the laborer in art. Rural, urban and industrial workers have appeared in representations since classical antiquity and certainly have been a popular theme in American art. We see them celebrated repeatedly in 19th and 20th century images, among them Winslow Homer's paintings of fishermen such as The Herring Net and The Fog Warning, both from 1885, and the touching image of an aged carpenter in Gertrude Fiske's The Carpenter, c. 1922. The shipbuilder is glorified in George Bellows' magnificent The Teamster, 1916, and Marguerite Zorach's Land and Development in New England, c. 1935, enobles the fishermen, loggers and builders of New England. There are numerous other examples that could be cited - Thomas Hart Benton's images of farm and factory laborers and Diego Rivera's heroic murals of working men and women for instance. But the unifying theme is that the very structureof civilization has historically rested on the industry and sacrifice of its manual laborers, the men and women who build, cultivate and produce. At once abstract and concrete, Branch's loosely-rendered paintings with their patchwork of vivid colors, are intimate glimpses into human relationships, into the good-humored camaraderie that unites workers with a common goal.

The Farnsworth Art Museum and the artist are indebted to John and Jill Freidenrich and to the Ruth Levison Halperin Fund for underwriting the exhibition catalogue. Without their generosity this publication would not have been possible. We would also like to thank Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University for permitting us to publish a taped conversation between herself and Ms. Branch that took place at the closing of the exhibition at the Cantor Center's Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery. The artist is very grateful as well to Jim and Lynn Gibbons for their support of the Men at Work project since its inception.

Thanks are due to Christopher B. Crosman, Director, and Victoria Woodhull, Associate Director of the Farnsworth for their unflagging support of the exhibition. We are grateful also to Peg Splaine and Kit Stone for their copy editing skills and to Angela Waldron, Bethany Engstrom and Stan Klein for their efforts with the installation. Harrah Lord of the Yellow House Studio in Rockport, Maine, produced the handsome catalogue design. We thank her for her grace and forbearance in working within an extremely tight deadline. And finally, we thank artist Joan Hooker for bringing the Men at Work installation to the attention of the Museum's curatorial staff and setting in motion the initial dialogues that led to the realization of the exhibition.

Helen Ashton Fisher

Exhibitions Curator

 

 

a conversation between Wanda M. Corn and Kristina Branch

wmc: Wanda M. Corn kb: Kristina Branch

 

wmc: Kristina, let's talk about the exhibition to give people a sense of its scope and design. For instance, what was your thinking about having the gallery for the Men at Work installation painted in such a daring color? It has a kind of green in it, also a kind of gray. It is a very beautiful choice, with the frames and walls in the same hue.

kb: I wanted to suggest something about the character of the construction site, and the color of wet cement came to mind. I painted the frames the same color so that the paintings would seem to be set into the surface. I was imagining the sides of the room as construction walls where people are able to peer through little openings, windows into another world.

wmc: Tell us about the general layout. What does it say about the theme of the exhibition and the sites where you painted?

kb: What I hope that people might experience in this space is something similar to what I felt when I first went onto the site. Initially I was attracted to the large vehicles and equipment. They were very seductive, in a way, with their shapes and colors. So I distributed them throughout the room between the paintings of the men. The trucks drew me in to the sites, yet as I began to work with that material, I became more and more curious about the men themselves.

wmc: Did you paint at more than one construction site?

kb: Yes, I did work from several sites, but ended up concentrating on one. My objective in this installation is to combine my observations of several sites in order to imply a single site that exists nowhere, except in my imagination. A single site with a variety of activities taking place simultaneously, close to the same time, or during the same day.

wmc: What was your working process? How did you approach the various sites?

kb: I would drive around until I saw a place that was intriguing to me. At the beginning, I was painting directly from my van. I had a small easel that fits over the steering wheel. On the seat next to me, I had my palette. And on the dashboard, I had turps and my brushes. But as I did that, I became more and more an object of curiosity, as you can imagine. The workers took an interest in what I was making. I think there's something about being a voyeur-you don't expect to have the tables to be turned. In a sense, you don't expect to be seen, but my van did become visible as it was more and more a part of the site. The men came up to my window and were very interested in my progress. They had a lot of questions and comments, and seemed pleased to find themselves in the paintings. Some of them even asked if I wanted them to wear the same clothes the next day. When I was invited to work on the site itself, I was delighted because it gave me a great opportunity to see what the men were doing close-up, but I was also nervous because I didn't know how I'd be treated. As it turned out, the men were generally very accepting of my presence there.

wmc: One other wonderful thing about this exhibition is how much punch you get in what are very small canvases. Some of them are almost like miniatures. I think a question anyone would want to ask you is: how do you decide on the size of your canvases?

kb: The size of the pieces is an important aspect of this installation because I wanted people to move from a larger painting, such as the one of the white truck (pl. 9), to a smaller-scaled view of a similar subject (pl. 5) to give a sense of moving out into deep space. The truck paintings include figures, but the men are less obvious. In this one (pl. 9), for instance, the man is almost hidden.

wmc: He's hardly seen until we notice the red cap.

kb: Yes, I want him to be kind of a surprise, just as he was to me. Oh, and another reason I painted some very small pieces was to emphasize the size of figures in the distance relative to my own hand and to create an accessible and intimate view of activities that were taking place quite far away. The sensation I had when I was working on the site was that I could reach into space and take something home that to me had become very precious. I thought of this cement truck (pl. 4), for instance, almost as a Fabergé egg that I wanted to keep and own. I didn't want an object such as this to become lost in a large panorama. I think of these paintings as vignettes cropped out of a larger whole. Keeping a sense of connection among the men was a critical idea in the series. I needed to avoid having the men become abstract marks, less apparent as figures, and I was also concerned that their interplay would be diminished by the large structures around them. My main interest was the men's activities, the liveliness of the occasional moments of intense color, and the sense of movement on the site. And the relationships that were formed within this larger world. And although not a primary factor, one of the practical advantages of making small paintings is that it gives me great flexibility as a painter to be able to work and move around relatively unencumbered.

wmc: When I look at these, it seems to me that you mixed genres. By that I mean it's hard to know if one had to characterize these paintings, whether to call them still-life, landscape or genre painting. It seems to me you have a way of pulling all of those old traditions together. Is that at all conscious or just a nice by-product?

kb: I saw the potential for playing with some of those traditions within the subject of the construction site because it's so vast, and there's so much material there to explore. This painting (pl. 2), for instance, is more characteristic of the work I did when I was first there and thinking of the men more as part of a traditional landscape than the primary subject of the painting. Although I thought of a wheelbarrow (Frontispiece) or a box of nails as an unusual possibility for a still-life, overall I think of these as genre paintings, because I am most interested in the men themselves and their relationship to the work place.

wmc: I think that the category of genre painting is probably the best description because you have people in them, and the people are always in movement or at work, really, or at total rest. But it's the intimacy of thecanvases that makes me think of still lives. They're so small, and I wouldsay domestic in scale. They feel comfortable in this small-scaled gallery. Was that conscious? I mean, is the installation intended to reinforce theintimacy of the paintings?

kb: Yes, very much so. And I hope the color helps to create an intimate mood. As a female in this particular male world, what I've selected to emphasize has to do with my own sense of what's important in life, which is somewhat domestic in nature-a dynamic between people that's complex and fundamentally unknowable.

wmc: You just mentioned the gender element to this series. And I noticed you call your exhibition "Men at Work." And I would gather there's not a single woman in it? Was gender at the forefront of your mind?

kb: Yes. I was excited by the idea of moving into an environment that was off limits, not only because I didn't have the skills, but because it's still primarily a male world. I was intrigued by the idea of depicting aspects of the male construction culture. I wanted to represent the variety of work they did-plastering walls (pl. 16), carrying plywood (pl. 8), unfolding site plans (pl. 1), and so forth. I was struck by how intent they were in completing their tasks well, how great a degree of interdependence there was, and mutual support. It was fascinating. And I think that for me this whole series became a study in sort of human industry in all its guises.

wmc: Would you finish your painting on site? Would it be a one-session painting? Or did you fiddle with it when you got back in the studio?

kb: None of my paintings were resolved on the site. It was nearly impossible for me to move beyond my initial response because things were changing so quickly. Just being on the site and working directly is so thrilling. It really is. It's like being backstage of the theater, something like that. And there's so much going on amid noise, dust and activity, that close deliberation and fussing isn't possible. I would work on many things at the same time. At the end of the day, I probably would have four or five new wet canvases in the back of the car. But rarely would I develop and complete more than one out of those when I got back to the studio.

wmc: How do you keep the paint so, sort of wet and fresh looking? That seems to be a quality you really worked towards in your canvases.

kb: I worked towards that goal, but not always successfully. My process is to mix the color directly on the canvas rather than on the palette, and to use very little medium. At the beginning stages, I work quickly with shapes of color and large brushes. I stop when I am not sure what to do next or when the view changes. Later, when I resolve the paintings in the studio, I work very slowly and carefully with thin glazes and small brushes, scraping areas down and rebuilding them. That is when I do most of the drawing, rather than at the beginning.

wmc: Kristina, here we have two paintings (pls. 16, 17) that form a unit. They both have similar kinds of colors, and they feel like maybe the men are working at the same moment on the same project at the site.

kb: I like the idea of clustering things around certain memories I have of a particular day or around activities that, as you say, were happening at the same time. But the installation is also composed on a formal level, looking at overall color relationships. I composed the show the way I compose my paintings, which is quite abstractly. I'm interested in how we see, what we focus on as a primary idea, and what is incidental. For instance, this yellow (pl. 12) really drew my eye. Obviously, the yellow is equally high in other places on the tractor, but because my focus on this spot becomes a very key part of the painting, everything else is seen in reference to it. And, correspondingly, I thought this was a nice way to kind of anchor this wall with this shot of that industrial yellow that's so bright.

wmc: I think your yellows are your espresso in a latte. It seems to me when you use yellow it's like getting a triple shot of café latte.

kb: Your comment makes me think of coffee breaks at the site, and men opening thermoses, talking, hanging out. This is Roger (pl. 15). He's someone that I got to know on one of the sites. That's a trailer that he would come in and out of. I have no idea what he was doing. A lot of times he would just look at things, smoke a cigarette, and have a moment to himself. He was taking a break and working at the same time. I loved watching the men, their different habits. Often it was frustrating to paint them because they moved quickly from one activity to the next. When I would complain, the men would joke and say to me, "Why don't you paint the boss? He's always standing still."

wmc: What about this threesome (pls. 10, 11, 13)? They, too, seem linked.

kb: Yes, they have a similar mood and they were painted in a fairly close time period. I worked on these over several days on the site. What struck me about this subject was that these men are up in the air, held by the scaffolding, which is like a spider web. They're protected but they're caged in, and there's a duality there that I found interesting. And even in this setting, there are routines of eating or talking or reading something. All of these human moments are so fleeting. In a finished painting there's a sense that things are permanent, but of course they're not. I wanted to paint some of these moments as if you were seeing them at a glance. You just looked up and saw a gesture or an exchange, which will never be repeated in quite the same way. These paintings (pls. 6, 7) are concerned with a man on his break. I'm trying to suggest time passing by linking these two paintings together. Actually, the port-a-potty series was more extensive than included in this installation - I thought of the series almost as filmic. I liked the idea of the paths of figures crossing on a plane where the port-a-potty was a kind of locus of activity. And I love that color of green, too. That green, every time I see that green, something in me goes "Yes!" In this small painting (pl. 6), I was also trying to find a shorthand for figures, a notation that would imply movement. I was thinking of hieroglyphs in space. I wanted to see how abstract they could be and still have them read as figures, not just marks.

wmc: Is there anything else you want to say about your painting process?

kb: I wanted to get back to the question you asked before, Wanda, about how the paintings were resolved. I make many changes as I work through a painting. In all these works, I tried to have them feel fresh but quite honestly, they were scraped down many times, the figures re-worked. There were a lot of other figures underneath that were taken out. One of my aims is to have something appear as if it just sprang off the canvas. On the other hand, there are hours of deliberation and an investment in many thin layers to make that happen, when it does. So they're a little bit deceiving in that sense. This painting (pl. 7) developed over a particularly long period of time. There were two men on the scaffold, two men originally. And one was looking down; he's this shadow now. He had a newspaper that was folded over a jacket, and this was his lunchbox. And yet, with successive takes on the painting, I became more and more aware that it was really about this man on the right. So that other man is gone, the ladder that he climbed up to get to that space is gone, and this man is left. The man who remains represents, for me, the moment of intersection of my world with the world of the construction workers. Because most of the figures have their faces averted, you don't see an individual's expression. You see a gesture or movement or some kind of activity. But here, it's the voyeur, myself, the maker of the painting being seen and being observed. And for me, it represents the moment of realization that my activity is similar to theirs. We're all making things. We're all part of the same process which has to do with putting something together that one hopes will last and mean something to somebody else.

wmc: That's a nice analogy. At some level, you and the construction men are both manual workers. That psychological bond between you expresses itself in the way some men look out at you from the canvas.

kb: Yes. In this painting of the two men finishing cement (pl. 18) I am looking at one of the men, and he is looking back at me. That happened a lot at the site. Men would look at me and make a circling gesture as if to say, "Turn the painting around." So I would hold it up and turn it around so that they could see it. That engagement and the sense of connection meant a lot to me. In the painting of the two men kneeling, one is looking up. He's seeing the viewer, and our focus is on him. There's a connection even though his face is masked. The man behind him, however, is someone we're seeing at a glance, and we're not sure whether or not he's seeing us. He is less defined because he is beginning to move out of focus almost completely. In the final painting (pl. 19), a solitary figure is also smoothing cement. He has braces on his legs with pads, and he is sliding backwards on wooden panels. He is beginning to disappear, in a way, into the environment. He's becoming part of the world of construction, the world of paint, and the world of the imagination. He is part of something else, beyond our grasp.

 

Wanda M. Corn is the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University. She is the author of The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1890-1910; Grant Wood: The Regionalist View; and most recently, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935.

These are edited excerpts from an interview on January 30, 2002 when Men at Work was on exhibition at the Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford University.

 

artist's statement

 

I did not set out to paint men at work, but rather the landscape of the construction site with its geometric structures and planes of earth. I was curious about this unfamiliar territory, almost exclusively male, and its cranes, trucks, and equipment. I began by painting from some distance away, with the secret pleasure of observing without being observed. But my perspective changed when I was discovered and invited to work directly on the site.

When I began to paint closer to the men, I became interested in the variety of jobs they performed - plastering walls, smoothing cement, unloading plywood. Despite their vulnerability, the men seemed indifferent to the danger around them. I also was intrigued by the routines of ordinary life that were established among the smoke and debris - the breaks between tasks, when the men found some time to be alone, or collected their gear and gathered to eat and talk.

I came to imagine the construction site as a parallel universe - one stripped to certain essentials of survival represented by hard hats, lunchboxes, tools, and the framework of buildings. In this pared-down world, human interaction was thrown into relief. Gradually my focus shifted from the abstract panorama to an intimate view. The men themselves, engaged in labor or at rest, became my subject.

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