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Art exhibit exposes workers’ plight

Brenna von den Benken
Staff Writer

“Worker” is a performance-based presentation that includes emerging artists James Gilbert and Jennifer Vanderpool’s sculptural elements, video and audio, creating an effective visual and aural experience throughout Jan. 27 until March 25 at the Lenzner Family Art Gallery at Pitzer College in Claremont.

A group of personified, life-size soft sculptures are positioned within a busy organic and raw environment, created by a mass of used thrift-store and abandoned clothing stacked and layered from floor to ceiling.

“It’s interesting how piles of messy clothing can be perceived as art,” museum attendee Jazmin Guevara said.

“Worker” creates an abstract world of exploited workers through stacks of clothes which fashion enormous human forms, that twist and hang from the ceiling and pepper the floor.

An inharmonious hum of buzzing bees and chirping birds make up the soundtrack, which is layered against the clattering of sewing machines in the gallery that produce dissonant and competing sounds.

“Worker” pays tribute to Gilbert and Vanderpool’s mothers and their numerous counterparts who worked in a textile factory in the late 1950s.

The artists simultaneously acknowledged current contemporary Los Angeles garment workers and their collective action to change sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles factories.

“It seems like a call to arms,” museum attendee Alyssa Reyes said.

“It’s basically an underlying movement to improve labor conditions through artistic expression.”

“I have loads of clothes scattered across my bedroom floor, and I never thought it could be distorted to represent something societal like this,” Guevara said.

“Worker” draws attention to the exploitation of contemporary laborers.

The exhibition accents the recurring invisibility of exploited workers within the process of mass production and the dangerous nature of their employment made especially worse by the current economic plummet.

Los Angeles has long been a place where it is dangerously easy to labor in obscurity.

The warehouses are a key switch-off in our global supply chain, the place where Asian production meets American consumption.

More than 90,000 employed at the immense warehouses of Ontario and Fontana plow through an invisible work field.

They work in large factories with no signs on their exteriors, just gray or white windowless walls.

“All the mess and confusion must symbolize how frustrated these workers are as they weave and sew away behind darkened walls,” museum attendee Alfredo Alvarez said.

The accompanying soundtrack of the exhibition blends the organic and the industrial; creating a pervasive and all consuming experience providing an electric and reflective space.

On opening night of the exhibition, an anthropomorphic sculpture was created by the artists, Pitzer College students and local participants dressed in repurposed clothes, and material used in the installation symbolically representing the efforts of unseen laborers.

Brenna von den Benken can be reached at

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