Art of the Fields

The Migrant Project avoids dusty cliches

Depicting agricultural laborers in art is a pathos minefield. Yes, immigrant farm workers suffer in what 1930s crusading journalist Carey McWilliams once famously deemed "factories in the fields." Yes, these people sacrifice their own health so the rest of the country can eat at tables groaning with cheap food. Yes, they deserve more money, health benefits, decent housing, human dignity. But art installations that concentrate on exploitation are almost invariably mawkish, maudlin, shrill and obvious. They deal not with people but caricatures. And while such a depiction is understandable—have you ever picked strawberries for eight hours straight, six days per week, for 20 years, while making maybe $75,000 for those two decades?—real art is all about subtlety, something quickly brushed aside by most artists.

There's nothing schmaltzy in "The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers," 40 photos of migrant workers at the Fullerton Museum Center. "When envisioning California, most people conjure up images of a warm, sea-sprayed coastline, redwood forests, and the opulence of Beverly Hills or the magic of Hollywood," writes photographer Rick Nahmias in a placard at the entrance of the exhibit. "It is easy to forget the farmland."

Nahmias thankfully forsakes the clichés, as workers—not his own lefty sentiments—tell their stories via Nahmias' uncomplicated photographs and prose. In an accompanying pamphlet, Nahmias annotates each picture, his restrained language like a Chinese brush stroke, offering powerful, painful details without bogging down in Lifetime network misery. "Strawberries" is an early-evening shot of a man standing next to towers of strawberry boxes that take up nearly three-quarters of the frame. "The day of this photograph," Nahmias observes matter-of-factly, "the pay was $1.15 per flat of eight boxes." Nahmias doesn't need to explain that the man probably made less than $100 for that rare day of full work; the haggard face does that.

Few of the sepia-toned shots depict workers working; adults rest, children attend school pageants. But the bitter reality of their conditions is hard to miss. In "Charreada," men on horseback laugh during a rodeo. But slightly blurry and off in the background, there's an orchard. Even while at play, Nahmias suggests, migrant farmers cannot escape the fields.

The glory days of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and their efforts to unionize California's migrant farm workers is noticeably absent from the pictures portion of "The Migrant Project" because a second concurrent exhibition of poster art in a separate gallery tells that story. Most of posters exhibited are classics of Chicano art such as "Sun Mad"—a poster of the Sun Maid Raisin girl, except the girl is a skeleton and the sun's rays flash like menacing razors. Nahmias keeps the pedagogy to a minimum here, only giving the names and dates of the posters and allowing the posters' bold imagery to speak of the struggles in the fields.

"The Migrant Project" concludes with a teasing but delightful glimpse into Orange County's own agricultural past. A description of Chávez's 1973 visit to Cal State Fullerton complete with a picture is included in a poster, along with orange carts and tools from the turn of the century. And the orange boxes stacked about nine feet high in a corner of the exhibit hall is exactly what the power of subtlety is about—no commentary, no pictures, just a stack of boxes, the migrant laborers' Sisyphean task overwhelming the room.

"The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers" at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona, Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Open Tues.-Wed. & Fri.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through Oct. 19. $4.

 
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