Visual Responses to Efficiency

WRITER (falling asleep): In any case, this is your technology, all these blast furnaces, cogs, all this bustle and fuss, enabling people to work less and stuff their faces more - nothing more than crutches, prostheses. But the purpose of humanity is to create works of art. Grand illusions! Images of absolute truth....It is, at least, disinterested, unlike all other human actions....

Andrei Tarkovsky

Industrial Strength

© 2002, The Robert
McLaughlin Gallery

The relationship between visual art and industry is conflicted, complex and dynamic. Both cultural and industrial production are permeated by a common ethos. These production-based endeavours participate in similar alchemic means of transforming disparate raw materials into a given form: their ends, however, remain distinctive. The same cadmium alloy that is used in the production of a nuclear reactor shield, finds its way into the warm hues of a painter’s palette. In the industrial age the roles of the artist and industrial labourer have overlapped: a Stalinist dictum designated artists as “engineers of human souls,” while more recently artists have been theorized as “cultural workers.”

This exhibition eloquently translates the industrial age, how it was, and continues to play out in the Canadian context. The scope of this exhibition is broad. Indeed, Industrial Strength charts the engine of sustained economic growth through the twentieth century and the repercussions which are felt today. Featured are works culled from The Robert McLaughlin Gallery’s permanent collection. A contemporary voice resonates in the works of three guest artists: Peter MacCallum, Ed Pien and Kartz Ucci. These historical and contemporary visual responses facilitate a lively and compelling discussion on the topic of efficiency.

The majority of works in this show present the factory as the locus of industry. This specialized and functional architecture provides the framework for industrial output in Canada. In her essay on a similar-themed exhibition, Rosemary Donegan writes: “One of the major obstacles to recording industrial production was access to industrial sites. Factories are, by their very nature as private property, inaccessible. Only in wartime...were artists able to gain access.” A privileged glimpse into all-out production is afforded in the 1942-3 works of Alma Duncan, Edwin Holgate and Carl Schaefer. Here, the human presence is integral to production, bent on winning the ‘war at home’. This documentary tradition carries over to the recent photographs of Peter MacCallum. There remains, however, a distinction. In a series of seven photos, MacCallum evacuates the labourer from the work-site. If the post-industrial paradigm, as coined by sociologist Daniel Bell, theorizes the eventual eclipsing of heavy, manual labour by new intellectual technologies, services and automation, the photographs of Peter MacCallum illustrate this new form of economic activity.

Industrial architecture offers a unique formal and technical challenge to artists working with traditional media. Buildings, both interior and exterior, present a visual complexity of pipes, ducts, silos, girders, lattice work, conveyors and chimney-stacks; a rhythmic array of rectilinear networks. Harold Town’s Through Forest the Jungle of Industry is an abstract characterization of this very morass. Bobs Cogill Haworth’s composition, Harlequin Hydro Development, Cornwall, plays with the random order of electric wires and pylons. The headframe in Yvonne McKague Housser’s Mine Elevator is described as a “somber and austere structure; it cannot blend with its surroundings.” A similar reading can be made of Thoreau MacDonald’s The Tower: the lugubrious monolith rises on the landscape, the excrescence of economic necessity.

In the selections from the permanent collection, we witness the efficacy of graphic media to depict the clean-lined order of the industrial subject. The visual complexity of factories and plants are delineated with clarity and precision in the prints and drawings of Alice Bradshaw, W.F.G. Godfrey, Charles Goldhamer and Isabel McLaughlin. The graphic media is also employed for its capability to capture the rationalized routines and calibrated gestures of heavy labour. The quick sketches of Louis Muhlstock, Edwin Holgate and John Scott arrest the movements of the worker outfitted with the accoutrements of his trade. Carl Schaeffer’s machinist and Alma Duncan’s rivetters, on the other hand, recall the man/machine dichotomy explored in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times. One would not go so far as to suggest that Duncan and Schaeffer depict victims of the modern age, rather the pictures coyly boost the frenzied production of wartime industry. Laurence Hyde, however, takes a resolute stand. The artist depicts the anonymous worker shattering the manacles of “economic slavery”. Such heroic imagery is characteristic of the depression era and social(ist) realism.

The full breadth of commodity capitalism are aptly accounted for throughout the exhibition. All stages from the extraction and refinement of raw resources (Alma Duncan’s Open Pit and Skipway and Steetley on Highway #5 by Kim Ondaatje) to manufacturing to distribution (William A. Drake’s S.S. Potomac, U.S. Lines) to exhaustion are represented. The penultimate effects of the industrial cycle are pointedly taken up in both Kartz Ucci’s and Ed Pien’s work. Ucci gauges the detritus of the uranium industry. Her ongoing, multi-lateral project tailings vexes the issue of radioactive tailings waste on a northern Ontario mining-turned-retirement-town of Elliot Lake. In a similar skein Ed Pien’s drawings render the human form in all its fragility and grotesque nature. Loosely based on medical documents of birth defects and deformity caused by effluents and industrial pollution, Pien’s drawings are visceral reactions to the symptoms of industry and its effects on living tissue. Both Pien and Ucci account for the trauma of the post-industrial environment.

Olexander Wlasenko

Exhibition Curator


1. Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky: Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (New York: Faber and Faber, 1999) 402.

2. Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973) 274.

3. Rosemary Donegan, Industrial Images (Hamilton: Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1987) VII-X.

4. John Flood, “Yvonne McKague Housser: Northern Moments” in Northward Journal, no. 16 (1980)14.


Exhibition at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Exhibition Dates: January 10 - March 17, 2002
ISBN: 0-921500-52-1