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Art review: Sharon Lockhart at Blum and Poe

December 4, 2009 |  1:30 pm

400.Michael-Stufflebeam,-Maint From Lewis Hine to Irving Penn, photographs of workers have alternately exposed inhumane conditions and fostered nostalgia for "honest labor." In her latest exhibition at Blum and Poe, Sharon Lockhart puts a twist on this conflicted tradition, making portraits of the workers at a Maine shipyard by photographing their lunchboxes.

To their credit, the images don't evoke pity or sentimentalize labor. Instead they attempt to find examples of individual expression and play amid the dehumanizing conditions of industrial work.

Shot dead center on a neutral ground, each lunchbox is a microcosm of its owner's tastes and personality. Most are beat-up plastic coolers, although there are a few old-school metal boxes and a (surprisingly romantic) wooden picnic basket. Many bear decals professing allegiance to a union or military unit; one is almost completely covered in banana stickers, a personal diary of consumption.

These understated portraits are accompanied by a 40-minute video — a single, long, slow motion pan down a factory corridor during break time. The workers appear only on the edges of the image, squeezed onto wooden benches or picnic tables and dwarfed by industrial-strength lockers, snaking cords and glimpses of heavy machinery.

It's a dismal place to take a break, making Lockhart's lunchbox portraits seem like small interior worlds designed to stave off soul-numbing monotony. Yet her focus on the lunchboxes also reinforces the factory's emphasis on things over people. Although Lockhart skirts the more syrupy aspects of conventional portraiture, her images risk marginalizing the very workers they seek to represent.

– Sharon Mizota

Blum and Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 836-2062, through Jan. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blumandpoe.com

Image: Michael Stufflebeam, Maintenance Pipefitter, 2008. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.

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