William Monaghan, Untitled #1709 (detail), 2017. Steel and aluminum paint on wood panel, 60 x 60 in. Photo: Courtesy William Monaghan Studio

New Orleans and the Art of Labor

Zarouhie Abdalian, William Monaghan, and Franco Alessandrini

Considering the long-held view that, for ordinary people, manufacturing jobs hold the key to the American dream, there is something almost elegiac about the often reported fading fortunes of blue-collar workers. In an age shaped by the immaterial labor of digital technologies and algorithms, physical labor, as addressed in many academic and mass media discussions, is often imbued with an aura of the past tense, perhaps because so many Rust Belt industries have been decimated by automation and outsourcing. But is material, or physical, labor really a thing of the past to the extent that so many seem to think? Such questions implicitly linger in the works of three very different New Orleans artists. Zarouhie Abdalian and William Monaghan were each showcased in exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2019, while Franco Alessandrini debuted a new public monument dedicated to the city’s Latin American workers.

Zarouhie Abdalian, Hull, 2018. Ballast stone and gold plate, 22 x 22 x 11 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Abdalian’s “Production” show featured a suite of sculptures inspired by physical labor and hand tools, which had played an important role in Chanson du ricochet, her 2013–14 installation for the Prospect.3 New Orleans Biennial. There, she substituted mirrored glass for wooden architectural elements in the façades of early 19th-century structures at the New Orleans African American Museum, a former antebellum plantation complex largely built by the free Creoles of color who dominated the local construction industry at the time. Those structural details, transformed into ethereal manifestations of light, were accompanied by an ambient soundtrack of a voice naming the tools originally used in their construction. Abdalian’s focus on labor and hand tools marks an evolution from her earlier, more Duchampian interest in manufactured objects like locks and doorbells, arranged as pristine forms encased in vacuum-sealed Plexiglas or otherwise presented to heighten their formal aura. More than a stylistic device, her emphasis on hand tools signifies a shift from mass production to the more intimate reality of tools as expressive extensions of the body, somatic responses to the challenges of everyday life. The vast armies of tradesmen and laborers still required to keep homes, vehicles, roads, utilities, and every other aspect of civilization in working order are as necessary and pervasive today as they ever were, or as Abdalian has argued: “Most waged labor is still manual.”

Consequently, her concoctions of hand tools stripped to their essence, nickel-plated, and arranged in Zen-like configurations, are not only iconic and visually arresting, but also very much of the moment. Joint (ix)—a drafting compass, box wrench, and industrial shears in a conical composition held in place by gravity—is buffed and plated with a mirror-like nickel finish that radiates light as ethereal presence. Joint (iv) employs a similar strategy in which polished, nickel-plated tools for drafting, building, knitting, and cooking appear atop a pedestal as a sublime enigma. These works embody a quality of presence that encourages a directness of perception, such that sensory immediacy takes precedence over the processes of habitual mental conceptualization in ways that enable us to see ordinary objects as if for the first time. These works were accompanied by sounds of construction, an ambient recorded soundtrack visually embellished by a tidy tracery of cursive script on the walls spelling out the names of tools, including “drill bit, hemostat, shale shaker.”

Zarouhie Abdalian, Joint (ix), 2017. Mirrored hand tools, 7 x 7 x 10.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

An adjacent series of more abstract bas-reliefs reflected the kinetic impact of hand tools. Hydrocal castings of marks left by chisels and extraction tools once used at a long-defunct Mississippi chalk mine memorialize the miners who died from occupational diseases like silicosis while resonating with the Paleolithic origins of cutting and shaping implements. In Hold, which embodies the gravitas of manual work, a ballast stone of the sort once used to stabilize merchant ships is situated on a gold-plated square of sheet metal with upthrust corners. The assembly melds brute impact with a formal floral delicacy—a characteristic that also appears in Abdalian’s works exploring the complex relationships that result from the encounter between natural forces and human will channeled through the body and its mechanical extensions. “Production,” which also included six films exploring the nature of work in a variety of settings, instilled a sense of physical labor not simply as a commodity but also as a universal and inescapable human imperative inherent to the perpetuation of life itself.

William Monaghan’s “I—Object” wall sculptures (also shown at the CAC) are inspired by the life and death of machine parts, expressed in rhythmic concoctions of derelict scrap metal objects. After studying visual art at Harvard and Yale, Monaghan fulfilled his interest in expressive physical labor in a practical way by working first as a builder of foundry patterns (the wooden forms used to cast machine parts) and later as a construction contractor. After decades as a builder in the Northeast, he moved back to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and founded Build Now, a nonprofit that helps displaced residents acquire affordable, eco-friendly new homes based on traditional local designs, of which over 100 have been built thus far.

William Monaghan, installation view of “William Monaghan: I—Object,” 2018–19. Photo: Alex Marks

The “I—Object” reliefs reflect the industrial fabrication methods that have influenced Monaghan’s work since the 1970s. Mounted on wood, they often recall Allan Kaprow’s gritty, found-object assemblages of the 1960s. Monochromatic finishes emphasize ripples of light and shadow on surfaces that resonate with a rhythmic musicality amid the ravages of dereliction. An untitled magenta-tinted mélange of twisted steel, metal mesh, and flaccid coils evokes mechanical viscera and the animistic aura of the now-derelict machines that many of us once relied on before they ended up in scrap heaps. Another untitled work, a gunmetal-gray array of metal circles, rods, and abraded sheet metal rectangles in a contrapuntal arrangement, looks almost like a failed effort at a music box mechanism cobbled together from the ruins of the industrial age. Scattered amid all this were hints at the history of industrial design, as well as mangled memories of the rhythmic Futurist vitality of Fernand Léger and Filippo Marinetti mixed with the vengeful nihilism of Kurt Schwitters and the Dadaists. Though most machines come to a messy end, the birth of their parts often begins with the precise, elaborate, and often beautiful wooden foundry patterns crafted as prototypes for the molds from which those parts were cast—a series of them displayed in the exhibition offered a salient counterpoint.

Monaghan’s concoctions sometimes conjure industrial ghosts, particularly of the New Orleans’ riverfront where his father once worked. Their rhythms recall the muscular choreography of Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals and other early 20th-century tributes to laborers. Such works, though once quite common, are rare today.

William Monaghan, Untitled #1724, 2017. Steel aluminum and paint on wood panel, 96 x 96 in. Photo: Courtesy William Monaghan Studio

Consequently, it was nothing less than startling when Tribute to Latin American Workers, by New Orleans-based sculptor Franco Alessandrini, was unveiled in 2018. The bronze and marble monument is installed in Crescent Park, a riverfront greenway that replaced the old warehouses separating the city’s residents from the Mississippi river. Preceded by little in the way of fanfare, the Creole/Constructivist-style work, commissioned by retired New Orleans physician Dr. Juan Gershanik and dedicated to the Hispanic laborers who spearheaded rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, hints at both the social-realist figuration of Rivera and the ornate ragtime-era design of historic New Orleans residential architecture, which these workers did so much to preserve. A rare acknowledgement of the fact that modern America is addicted to the labor of immigrant workers, Tribute to Latin American Workers also harks back to the days when Louisiana’s Depression-era governor Huey Long vowed to make the state a worker’s paradise, with vastly expanded access to free education and subsidized medical care via a network of state facilities, many embellished with Rivera-esque murals and metal friezes. Before his assassination in 1935, Long was so successful that his efforts influenced national policy during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. At the time, labor was more broadly represented in both high and popular American culture than it is now. (In a television interview, Gershanik cited another motivation behind the monument: the children of Latin American construction workers were picking up on cultural biases against blue-collar work in school, and he wanted to do something that affirmed the importance of their parents’ labor and contribution to the city.)

Franco Alessandrini, Monument to the Latin American Workers, 2018. Bronze and Carrara marble, 12 ft. high.

For New Orleans, any revival of labor-based public art assumes added resonance in the wake of the city’s removal of Confederate monuments in 2017. All of which raises a larger question: Whose history should we commemorate, and how should we go about that process? Alessandrini’s Tribute offers one approach that addresses local history and concerns. For Contemporary Arts Center curator Andrea Andersson, the Abdalian and Monaghan exhibitions were an appropriate way to honor what she describes as the “fragile and often invisible laboring community” that sustains so much of what we take for granted.