Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget

Where: American Art Museum

When: through August 3, 2014

I make a point of going to see every new exhibit at the Smithsonian and National Gallery, regardless of whether I think I'll like it or not.  Most of the time, if I'm excited to see something, I'm not disappointed.  Other times, I feel less enthusiasm for a show; for whatever reason, it just doesn't appeal to me.  Many times, I'm right about these as well: they're usually not to my taste.

Every once in a while, though, I feel ambivalent about a show and it's wonderful.  It's what keeps me going to exhibits that I would otherwise pass up - the idea that I will be wildly surprised by how good something is.  The Ralph Fasanella exhibit currently on display at American Art is one of those shows.

I had never heard of Fasanella before, and his story is an unlikely one.  The son of Italian immigrants, he worked several blue collar jobs before turning to art, and it was quite a few years before he could paint full time.  With no artistic training, his work is considered folk art, and that's an excellent way to describe his paintings for two reasons.  They are the output of an untrained artist and they are, for the most part, about "folks," the common people - their lives, their environment, their dreams.

There are less than 30 pieces in this exhibit, but you'll want to allow time to look at each one carefully.  They are incredibly detailed: rich, complex, intricate pictures - the kind that could hang on your wall for years and offer you something new each time you looked.  They are often of urban scenes; his New York City from 1957 opens the show, and I was hooked at first glance.  You feel as if you're pulled into the painting, a part of the hustle and bustle of the streets.

There's nothing subtle about these works; they're wildly colorful, which I like very much, and they speak loudly about the plight of the working man and the power of organized labor to better their lives.  Many of them are overtly political, and the Rosenbergs feature prominently in several.  His views on the latter half of the 20th century are made manifest by his willingness to call out politicians who he thinks do not have the people's best interests at heart.  If I were to pick one word to describe his work, it would be "unapologetic."

"Lest we forget" is his mantra, and it appears in most of his works.  The idea is that we must not forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before us.  His works feature family themes, and there are many religious overtones.  A disillusioned Catholic, he takes the church to task as well for promising workers a heaven in the afterlife, while ignoring the hell on earth.  He also has little patience for those who would leave the vibrance and activity of the city for a sterile life in the suburbs.

As I looked at one of his painting featuring newspapers, I found myself reminded of Roz Chasts's cartoons, as I looked at the faces on the papers.  Two completely different artists, with completely different life stories, but their paintings of faces look alike.  Perhaps it's because I just read an article about Chast and her new book, but the resemblance struck me strongly.

Verdict: Don't miss this great show; it's small, but worth a full lunch time.

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