At the National Portrait Gallery, where I visited the new Obama portraits, it’s not ALL presidents and other known faces on view there. In fact, the “Sweat of their Face” exhibit is just the opposite; it “combines art and social history with representations of American laborers across genres and centuries of art.”
Among portraits of laborers – a riveter, a migrant worker, a “sandwich artist” at Subway – there’s this statue of “The Gardener (Melissa with Bob Marley Shirt).”
Now as the subject of portraiture I love Melissa, but she raises some questions.
First, to my eyes she looks more like a home gardener than a “laborer” at gardening, someone paid to do it for others. And the possible misuse of the term “Gardener” to identify a paid laborer is an example of wildly different interpretations of the term.
For example, when my nongardening friends see me calling myself “Gardener Susan” they wonder why I’d identify myself as a poorly paid worker – or a very uncool hobbyist. I can’t even wrap my head around seeing “gardener” as a term to avoid. Is there a better word for someone who grows plants? Seriously, I’m interested.
Then there’s what the exhibit curator tells us about Melissa, that she’s “enjoying a moment of rest, to which anyone can relate.” Really? With her skyward gaze and unhappy expression it looks like she’s thinking “God, when will this be over?”
The curator goes on to say that “At the same time, Melissa is very clearly portrayed as an individual and as someone who should be respected.”
Sure. After all, the sculpture is a life cast of an actual neighbor of the artist.
Several other workers in the exhibit can be seen in this article.