What was that about the WPA?

For her Raw/Cooked exhibition, Supple Beat, Marela Zacarias has installed in the Museum’s lobby and Great Hall four site specific works, each based on one of the Williamsburg Murals. These works seduce on a purely visual level, but don’t stop there. With ties to WPA (Works Projects Administration, part of the New Deal) projects and American art of the 1930s, Supple Beat raises themes of social responsibility, urban renewal, and the role of art in the life of a city.  Zacarias has reimagined the Williamsburg murals—the earliest examples of abstract public art in the United States—as fleshy rebellious objects that will not stay put.  These voluptuous shapes seem to be unfurling and flaunting their colorful surfaces, proudly defying the ‘merely’ decorative function often assigned to mural painting. For example, in the installation 122-192 Bushwick in the Great Hall, a sculpture has slunk off of the wall entirely and wrestles with a television set for our attention, its planes and lines of Paul Kelpe-inspired color flickering in the reflected light of the T.V..

Raw/Cooked: Marela Zacarias

Raw/Cooked: Marela Zacarias, February 1, 2013 through April 28, 2013 (Image: DIG_E_2013_Raw_Cooked_Marela_Zacarias_001_PS4.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2013)

Zacarias conceived these objects from the outset to be quasi-organic and anthropomorphic; she shapes and grows her works, golem-like, in her studio, sketching them first with ordinary window screen, plywood, a power drill and screws.  Zacarias has perfected her technique (painting and sanding multiple layers of joint compound before covering all with original painted designs) through rigorous studio practice. She’s also a serious colorist—for Raw/Cooked she spent hours studying the color palettes of the original murals at the Museum—and a bit of an activist who often works with local communities to incorporate the history of spaces, things and people. In Supple Beat each title refers to actual street names and addresses of the Williamsburg Houses. Certain titles have other associations too, like 202-254 Graham,  which stretches toward the mezzanine balcony and reminds Zacarias of the great American choreographer and dancer Martha Graham.

While Zacarias has created both figurative and abstract murals in the past, her interests and studio practice in recent years have shifted towards abstraction and pattern and intersecting histories. Whether she’s inviting participation from local residents on public art projects or advocating for immigrants’ rights, she has track record of combining her aesthetic interests with social and political activism; in Hartford, Connecticut she was the cofounder of Latino/as Contra La Guerra (Latino/as Against the War) and also worked closely with the Regional Coalition for Immigrant Rights in Connecticut. In the case of the Williamsburg Murals Zacarias appreciates that the city of New York and the WPA made a bold move in supporting abstract art, commissioning works by Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, Albert Swindon and Balcombe Greene (little known abstractionists at the time, now revered as an important American artists working in the Constructivist tradition—think forerunners of Color Field and Hard-edge painting.) Against the odds these murals had a life in the Williamsburg Houses, were lost beneath coats of paint in the post-war period, and finally rediscovered and restored in the late-1980s. Supple Beat takes inspiration from the strength and vision of 1930s New Yorkers—artists, urban planners, and regular people who lived through the Great Depression. It also sends out a hopeful note for urban renewal and the future of livable neighborhoods in New York City.