Out of the Ashcan

The "apostles of ugliness" have the last laugh

The impact of Ashcan realism on the social documentarians of the 1930s and 1940s can best be seen in Jacob Landau's crayon-on-paper portrait Unemployed. Like the original Ashcan group, Landau began his career as a book and magazine illustrator. In this work, five dejected men sit on a street-corner bench beneath a turned-down "One Way" sign that points at them like the finger of fate. If the turn-of-the-century Ashcan artists were the first to paint the underside of urban American life, they did so in a celebratory tone; their heirs, like Landau, added a more overt political edge. For a 1999 retrospective of his work, Landau wrote, "I have a strong sense of how man's inhumanity to man has worked to create the kind of society we live in." His work has the passionately partisan spirit of artist Ben Shahn or illustrator Lynn Ward.

Dorothy Winslade was a prominent West Coast artist who worked in the Ashcan tradition. Her 1935 etching Girl Showportrays a gaggle of street hawkers and gawking onlookers standing under a group of mute, statuesque strippers. A wailing child is lifted above the crowd, her face turned toward the viewer. Winslade contrasts the loud vulgarity of this peep-show crowd with the languid poses of the naked women suspended within a gigantic stage set. The gallery aptly juxtaposes Winslade's print with some photos and engravings by Reginald Marsh, whose favorite subject matter included burlesque shows, carousels, and dime-a-dance joints. The hysteria of Winslade's spectators is echoed in Marsh's 1941 fantastical engraving Three Girls on a Chicken, showing a trio of Coney Island cuties galloping on a grotesque carousel rooster.

Critics like Robert Hughes have rightly noted that in its turn-of-the-century heyday, Ashcan realism coincided with Teddy Roosevelt's Roughrider vision of American machismo at home and abroad. But its roots go back earlier, as is evident in Mary Moran's 1881 etching The Cliff Dwellers of New York, depicting a group of wooden shacks and shanties precariously perched on a rocky outcrop at the end of a street. These flimsy structures are elaborately detailed in dark tones in the print's foreground, while in the distance, encroaching rows of brick tenements loom above them. It's a wonderfully emblematic image of the end of one America -- the coarse, improvised world of homesteaders and pioneers -- and the beginning of another, the organized grid of Manhattan streets and standardized housing.

Sing Out, Baby June! by Don 
Sing Out, Baby June! by Don Freeman.


Through Nov. 1

Admission is free


George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), S.F.

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George Luks' 1925 oil Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania shows what replaced that earlier world. For this brooding portrait of an impoverished coal-mining town, the artist borrows the palette of van Gogh's Potato Eaters, with its sooty textures and bleak tonality. A smokestack and giant crane hover above some workmen shoveling from a pyramid of coal. The gray, backlit sky and darkly clad figures are rendered with coarse brush strokes and palette-knife smears. Luks, who vaunted his brutal youth of barroom brawls in Pennsylvania mining towns, had this artistic motto: "Guts! Guts! Life! Life! That's my technique."

George Bellows' 1917 lithograph Dance in the Madhouse is certainly the most macabre work in the show. It once appeared as an illustration in Harper's, and portrays a group of inmates and visitors in a round dance, apparently the therapy du jour at the Great State Hospital of Columbus, Ohio, whose superintendent was a friend of Bellows. The characters resemble the lunatics and witches in Goya's series of etchings titled Los Caprichos. Bellows was best known for his startling canvas depicting the brutality and violence of boxing, Stag at Sharkey's, arguably the greatest American sports painting ever and the most famous Ashcan work.

The Krevsky exhibit encompasses nearly seven decades of Ashcan-related art, including oils, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs. It reminds us of the breadth and radical content of this school, as well as its enduring impact. There's nothing antique or old-fashioned in these works, whose freshness and candor escaped the critics of their time but which today are welcome for their honesty and spontaneity.

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