Bostonia feature: Words on Labor, Writ Large at the ICA Watershed

This article was first published in Bostonia on July 25, 2022. By Joel Brown

Excerpt

I NEED A GODDAMN JOB

AND THEN THEY EXPECT YOU TO PICK A CAREER

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

THE YOUNG MEN LIKE THEIR MONEY

THERE’S OVERTIME AND BONUS OPPORTUNITIES GALORE

WORKING ALL SUMMER JUST TO TRY TO EARN A DOLLAR

The words, taken from song lyrics and worker interviews, pile up into found poetry. They call out man’s relation to his labor, the worker’s relation to the boss, the fraught balancing of self-respect, and the need to earn a paycheck.

That the words are painted on the walls of the ICA Watershed, a renovated World War II–era copper pipe and sheet metal shop on the East Boston docks, adds another layer of meaning. You want symbolism? Chains hang from an old winch mounted on a steel girder nearby.

“I really wanted to connect to the architecture,” says the artist, Joe Wardwell (CFA’99), who earned an MFA in painting from the College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts and is now an associate professor of painting at Brandeis. “To me that back room was just so wild, I wanted to take it over, I wanted to connect to the framework, connect to the steel girders.

“It being East Boston and the Watershed, there’s just so much room to do that. The ideas kept spilling out,” Wardwell says on a Zoom call from Siena, Italy, where he is running a summer art program for 25 Brandeis students.

The monumental site-specific work, 27 feet high at its tallest, is called Gotta Go to Work, Gotta Go to Work, Gotta Get a Job, and it covers facing walls at the Watershed, the four-year-old seasonal satellite of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, which is visible just across the harbor.

Wardwell’s work, on display through September 5, is the only new commission among large pieces from six different artists that make up this year’s Watershed group exhibition Revival: Materials and Monumental Forms. They grapple with labor and sacrifice, sustainability and reuse, the way the world economy grinds down some and lifts up others. Wardwell’s piece in particular plays off carefully retained echoes of the site’s World War II–era industrial past.

“Every artist you bring in here is really struck by the building, the cinder block walls, the kind of marks snaking across it, these railroad tracks that hauled material in and out, this long truss up top,” says Ruth Erickson, the ICA/Boston Mannion Family Curator, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Anni Pullagura.

“I was especially interested in this idea of reuse, repair, and the ways artists use existing materials and images to give birth to something new,” Erickson says, “especially as they reflect back on histories of labor.”

Lately, Wardwell has specialized in works incorporating large-font text, often song lyrics. In Gotta Go to Work, rock and folk fans will recognize words from songs by John Lennon, the Clash, Billy Bragg, and Woody Guthrie, about working class heroes, their hopes and fears and struggles.

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