Sangre de Cristo's spring exhibits reignite the industrial artistry of The Machine Age

click to enlarge Billet Caster by John Wark.
  • Billet Caster by John Wark.

Do we have faith in technology? Do we think that, thanks to the marvels of science, the world will become more peaceful and prosperous, that we stand on the brink of a golden age, in which machines will free us to be creative and enable us to live healthy, productive lives? Of course we don't. Even as we depend increasingly on technology, we both scorn and fear it.

Today's harried executive, with her laptop, her CrackBerry, her frenetic, technology-addled life, didn't aspire to such an existence. She's simply doing what she must to succeed, a prisoner to the technology that's supposed to serve her.

But in the first half of the last century, belief in "progress," coupled with vaguely Marxist notions about the perfectibility of man and society, created the modern aesthetic. Form followed function, and clean, spare forms came to dominate both art and industrial design.

In a provocative, wide-ranging group of exhibits collectively titled The Machine Age at the Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center in Pueblo, curator Jina Pierce invites us to consider the complex interactions between industrial technology, utopian philosophy, art and design in the first half of the 20th century. Such a show would be challenging for a major museum to mount, let alone a small regional institution with a minuscule budget.

Amazingly, Pierce pulls it off. It's as interesting, original and thoughtful as anything to appear in the Rocky Mountain region since the Denver Art Museum's magisterial survey of the art of colonial South America a couple years back.

That Denver show took years to mount, with a budget close to seven figures and an expert staff. By contrast, Pierce put her show together with an assistant, a couple interns and a cell phone all in six months.

At first glance, it's an unlikely group of exhibits. One gallery is devoted to a small subcategory of industrial design (Streamlining: A Metaphor for Progress), another to digitally altered historic photographs of steelmaking, and a third to the artwork of Boris Artzybasheff. In addition, Rick Dula's paintings and Michael Boyd's pieces are on display. Finally, there's a collection of steel-mill memorabilia called Choice Remains.

Object reality

"Pueblo has such a huge inferiority complex," Pierce claims, explaining the thoughts behind Streamlining. "I'd been wanting to do a show that showed the importance of the blue-collar scheme of things: how a steelworker's thermos or flashlight ties into locomotive and airline design; how design trends in industry tie into cooking and eating utensils and home dcor."

To that end, Pierce amassed hundreds of objects, from the gleaming Airstream travel trailer at the center's entrance to Roseville Futura ceramics, Russel Wright china, and blown-up fashion photographs from 1930s Vogue. Joining them in the White Gallery are utterly mundane pieces a '30s canister vacuum cleaner, chrome-plated toasters, even one of those gigantic, rocket-shaped hairdryers that Grandma's hair salon threw out years ago.

"People come in and they look at an armchair, or a toaster, or a set of plates, and they say, "You mean, this is valuable? I had one just like it and I threw it away/gave it to Goodwill/sold it for 50 cents at my garage sale!'" Pierce explains. "It all looks so familiar and old-fashioned, that it's hard to realize how revolutionary it was when it was created."

click to enlarge c8fa_artbreak-20719.gif

Much of the material in Streamlined comes from Denver's Kirkland Museum, which is primarily devoted to the works of 20th-century Denver artist Vance Kirkland. Kirkland was an early collector of modernist objects, and his small collection has been substantially expanded in recent years.

According to Julie Elam at the Kirkland, streamlining, as a subset of Art Deco, was both influential and uniquely American.

"Streamlining was huge aerodynamics in design for trains, planes and automobiles transferred over into everyday items," she says.

The Airstream trailer is brilliantly restored, its aluminum body buffed to a mirror finish. It's virtually identical in form to the sleek Elekthermax toaster. But while the Airstream's teardrop shape may make aerodynamic sense, why streamline a toaster? Or a vacuum cleaner? Or a teapot?

The answer goes beyond simple fashion, as the exhibit makes clear. It has to do with theories of design, production and society itself. These theories weren't held by social philosophers, but rather by photographers and industrial designers.

For example, believing that people would be happiest, and society healthiest, if everyone lived in spare spaces surrounded by unfussy, functional objects, the French architect Le Corbusier proposed that 100 square blocks in the heart of Paris be demolished and replaced by high-rise apartment buildings.

Happily, his plans never came to fruition, but the philosophy behind them animated the removal of slums in scores of cities, and their replacement by housing projects. Such ambitious social engineering is a subtext of the exhibit: The designers and creators of the objects weren't just selling merchandise, but casting off the shackles of the past, and creating a new world.

Time machine

The work of artist/illustrator Boris Artzybasheff is familiar to anyone who has seen Time magazines from the '50s and '60s. Artzybasheff's witty, inventive and wholly original art graced no fewer than 200 Time covers. Artzybasheff is best known for the friendly surrealism somewhere between Dali and Disney that animated his black-and-white drawings of industrial machines and processes.

In 1943, Wickwire-Spencer Steel (subsequently acquired by Pueblo's CF&I, and now owned by Oregon Steel Mills) commissioned Artzybasheff to produce 29 illustrations for the company. Intended to illustrate the company's role in defeating Nazi Germany, they became immensely popular.

They brought in over a quarter of a million dollars, a tremendous sum in 1945, when they were auctioned to benefit the war effort. These drawings, in the form of giclee prints, are on display in the third-floor foyer gallery.

Artzybasheff depicts the workings of a steel mill by shaping the massive industrial machinery at the heart of steelmaking into quasi-human, living creatures. Something as arcane as the first tap of steel becomes, seen through Artzybasheff's whimsical eye, friendly, approachable and as warm and safe as Christmas.

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The message is clear: Technology is on our side, even the dark, dangerous, noisy, polluting technology of early 20th-century steelmaking.

Mill stops

Next to Artzybasheff's fantastical works, in the King Gallery, are original and digitally manipulated historic photographs of Pueblo steelmaking by John Wark and Gary Voss.

Although Artzybasheff's illustrations suggest a work environment as clean and cheerful as your neighborhood McDonald's, Pueblo's mills were anything but. In Wark and Voss' Industrial Strength, liquid iron courses through stone troughs. Steelworkers, shielded by enormous fire screens, use probes to sample the basic oxygen furnace. A lone workman stands on a slag heap, silhouetted against curling smoke and cascading fire.

"When we were going through the original historic photos, we didn't know what we were seeing, so we found this wonderful retired steelworker who helped us label them," Pierce explains.

"He was looking at one I think of casting iron at the blast furnace and he said, "Wow, that was a dangerous place to work. I think 12 people died there in 30 years.'" An unaltered photograph of a horribly burned man from CF&I's archives underscores the danger.

The Sangre also received local help in displaying Choice Remains, in the Hoag Gallery, as Pueblo's Bessemer Historical Society loaned a collection of steel-mill memorabilia to anchor the exhibit. Along with the wonderful three-dimensional pieces are photographs and watercolors by accomplished Colorado artists Bonnie Woolsey Benschneider and Ben Benschneider.

Industrial-strength separates

In the Sangre's downstairs lobby, referred to as the Regional Gallery, is a display of Rick Dula's paintings. They're slick, evocative, almost photorealistic acrylics, largely of urban industrial scenes.

There's a large-scale piece of an unidentified oceanfront industrial complex near Seattle. Is it a refinery? A power plant? A factory? Its mystery and anonymity make us aware of just how far we've come from Artzybasheff's sweet-natured machines of half a century before.

If the optimism and exuberance of the Machine Age has a local heir, it must be Michael Boyd. In Integration of Stone and Metal, Boyd's improbably beautiful combinations of metal, precious metals, colored gems and polished minerals celebrate form, with just a slight nod to function.

One particularly striking ring features fragile gems that protrude several inches from the setting. Brush your hand against a door wearing this piece, and it's destroyed. And you could drink a martini from his $3,000 glass, but why risk it?

click to enlarge Wire Chewers by Boris Artzybasheff. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN WARK
  • Photo courtesy of John Wark
  • Wire Chewers by Boris Artzybasheff.

Finally, at the Sangre's entrance is a piece by two local artists, Andy Sikora and Glenn Montgomery. It consists of two square timbers, Colorado spruce from the Hayman fire, hand-cut and planed, sanded and sealed. Each massive timber is about 5 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. They're encircled by bands of low-carbon steel and linked by a kind of paleoindustrial assembly of gears, chains and turnbuckles.

According to the artists, "This piece symbolizes the conflict man experiences trying to make nature conform to a set of human standards ... the broken chain is symbolic of no matter how hard we try, nature will overcome and reach its own equilibrium."

It's a fine piece, both a fitting introduction and an ironic coda to these sprightly, sparkling shows,


The Machine Age

Sangre de Cristo Arts &

Conference Center, 210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo

All exhibits running through April 22, some open into May

Admission: $4 adults, $3 children; call 719/295-7222 or visit sdc-arts.org for more.


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