Made in Cincinnati: The Winold Reiss Workers Murals Get a 2018 Update

On June, 22nd, 2018, the Weston Art Gallery will host an opening reception for Work/Surface, a fresh take on Winold Reiss’ “Worker Murals,” of 1933 by University of Cincinnati Professor Matt Lynch and his former student and muralist Curtis Goldstein. Previously exhibited in the Cincinnati Art Museum under the exhibition title Made in Cincinnati, the duo will exhibit some never-before-seen additions to the series, showcasing just some of the 14 sites they photographed in preparation of the work. FieldTrip contacted Lynch and Goldstein for an inside look at their process and what drew them into working with this subject in the first place.

The two artists met when Goldstein chose to pursue his master’s in fine arts at UC. Already a painter, Goldstein chose to explore a different approach to art making… sculpture.  It was there that he started a solo series called Trash Collages. Which followed a similar mosaic style of production to the Formica murals he would collaborate on. He also discussed the contrast from his previous work, “from a technical perspective, it was an added challenge… to have to predetermine the exact enclosed shapes for every fragment of the image, so that they would interlock perfectly. [compared to] trash collages, there is a little more planning.” 

A lifelong collaborator, Lynch also already had prior experience in large-scale installations, working with artist Steven Badgett, on the artist collective SIMPARCH since the mid-1990’s—so it wasn’t hard to imagine the two artists blending their abilities towards this project.  

“SIMPARCH likes to find new experimental ways to use materials with a very specific application,” Lynch explains. “Using Formica laminate as paint fits into this well.” 

Work/Surface is inspired by Reiss’ murals, created for the opening of Union Terminal, and which Lynch describes as “Prideful and bold, accessible to all.”

The original murals are defined by bright colors and idealistic views of labor and the workingman (a person on a wage based salary in an industrial field), a depiction that has been criticized as lacking the diversity that these workplaces would have had at the time. Reiss used a technique called “tessera” to craft the murals from cut tiles—some as small as a nickel. He used his knowledge of interior design to craft the art deco inspired aesthetic that Cincinnati residents know and love. 

Even though both artists are fans of Reiss's work, they never intended to replicate his style precisely. But as Goldstein puts it, “I did keep that color tendency in mind.” 

The artists chose a highly saturated, retro color palette that they selected to emulate Reiss’ style.  Lynch and Goldstein’s contemporary figures and the ways in which they are posed in the composition are reminiscent of Weiss’ Union Terminal murals, as well as the way that Lynch and Goldstein’s choice in materials.

One major difference to the approach was their choice to use Formica laminate in place of the tesserae. While much of the technique stays the same, the Formica presents a more minimal depiction because way the two artists chose to approach the mural with it. 

They also avoided the idealization of the workingman that Reiss imagined. As Lynch explains, “The machismo in the original mosaics was too much for us… we wanted to show real people doing real jobs.” Instead they chose to recreate workplaces like GE Aviation and the Perfetti Van Melle factories as they are, depicting a diverse and down-to-earth cast of working people. Lynch added, “Whether they look heroic or not. Work is noble.”

In creating the final mosaics, each artist had a specific focus. Goldstein was in charge of crafting the compositions in Photoshop that Lynch would execute using a laser-cutter to incise the brittle, laminated composite material. 

An interesting point to note in his process was that Goldstein formed the final compositions through a composite of the many photos taken. The artist explained that this was a side effect of trying to design a mural in one visit, and capturing the factories’ natural workflow. Since no one single perfect image can depict the many actions of employees, they collaged the workers who are constantly in movement. 

So far, Lynch and Goldstein’s project has received a good deal of support.  In addition to the shows at the CAM and the Weston Art Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum has purchased some of the murals for their permanent collection. Lynch said the acquisition: “Feels great. It makes sense to keep the works on public view, like the original ones.”  The artists also said that they plan to continue working on the series and potentially move towards industries with less tangible products, like design or tourism. 

Work/Surface opens June 22nd and runs through August 26th at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery. The Weston hosts a gallery talk with both artists June 28th at 7pm. 

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