Not just pretty pictures: Art on Martha’s Vineyard has a conscience

Jules Arthur works on his piece "Azucar de Havana" for his series "Culture and Commerce". —Courtesy Jules Arthur

Two artists with work currently showing on the Island have used their media to impart a message. Both Jules Arthur and Irving Petlin create works which can be admired on a purely aesthetic level, but also deal with socially pertinent issues.

Irving Petlin, who is showing a handful of paintings at A Gallery, is a lifelong political activist. During his time in Los Angeles in the 1960s, he was a principal organizer of the artists’ protest movement against the war in Vietnam, and was one of the planners of the legendary Peace Tower. He created the iconic anti–Vietnam War poster “And babies” in 1969. Through the  group Artists and Writers Against the War, which Mr. Petlin helped found, and other initiatives, Mr. Petlin became known as a leader in political activism. He remains active in various causes today.

Mr. Petlin is known as one of the world’s premier pastel artists. His work is shown in major galleries in New York and Europe, and has been included in shows at the Whitney and other museums.

The artist and activist frequently uses his work as a means of raising awareness. His

current series at A Gallery celebrates the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist who took the side of the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, and was known for her work in the trade union movement.

Mr. Petlin has depicted scenes from her life in a series which, when completed, will be part of a show in a Paris gallery, honoring the martyred heroine.

“She died during WWII while warning of what was coming but not being listened to,” Mr. Petlin said. “She got involved in the Spanish Civil War and identified wholly with the anti-Fascists. She wasn’t heeded. She wanted to join the Underground, but wasn’t allowed to. She was like a canary in the coal mine.”

The artist connects his subject’s life to the current political situation. “Simone Weil is a warning of what’s happening today,” he said. “If we just transpose what she was saying to what’s happening now, one can see how precious life is.”

Mr. Petlin, who lives in Paris and Chilmark, has shown his work at A Gallery for the past three years. He is known for using historical events or myths to impart a message.

The art historian Edward F. Fry once wrote of Mr. Petlin’s work, “This artist reaches us bearing the traces of lives, of times and places, which we recognize through him but would otherwise have forgotten in our rush to achieve that disembodied weightlessness which is our defensive response to the present condition of the world.”

A Gallery is the perfect venue for Mr. Petlin’s work. “I’m trying to bring fine art, serious art, to the gallery,” A Gallery owner Tanya Augoustinos said. “I focus on contemporary work. It’s not strictly decorative art. That’s not my purpose.”

Jules Arthur, who is the feature of the current show at Gallery Josephine, is a mixed-media artist who is dedicated to honoring people from the past with his art. His latest series, “Culture and Commerce,” represents the historical inequality between blacks and whites.

The artist’s website explains the project further: “In his latest body of work, ‘Culture and Commerce,’ Arthur examines and explores the narratives lost in the uneven accounting of history. Each portrait in this series is a fictitious advertisement that imagines what it might have been like had these craftsmen and women from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries been unencumbered in expressing their creativity and craft.”

Mr. Arthur uses a unique and painstaking process in his work. He creates three-dimensional scenes using a mixture of painting, fabric, antique objects, and text. He frames each work in a steamer trunk–style structure which he constructs himself, then builds upon the image by adding the other elements to create a vintage look surrounding the portrait centerpieces.

Among the beautiful and intricate pieces at Gallery Josephine are images of African American seamstresses, shoemakers, musicians, and coffee roasters.

“The series is basically about proprietorship,” Mr. Arthur said. “I’m honoring those individuals who have contributed their artistry to industry. It’s about appropriation. These are fictional advertisements. Given the power in their era, what would these individuals’ contributions have looked like?”  

Mr. Arthur points to the fashion industry as an example of an area where many cultures have provided influence that is often unaccounted-for.

“Designers have derived their artistry from various sources. You see an African aesthetic on the runways today — a wrap, a hairstyle, a Bantu knot. I feel like the designers don’t always give due credit to the origins they’re drawing from. This series takes a pause to ask, ‘Where did these styles come from?’ This beautiful artistry dates back hundreds of years.

“I like a strong narrative in my work,” Mr. Arthur said. “The human condition is a central focus of my work. This is an ongoing narrative. I plan on continuing this dialogue about appropriation.”

This is the second year in a row that Gallery Josephine has hosted Mr. Arthur’s work.

“We like to create conversations,” Nyama Wingood, co-owner of the gallery, said. “This body of work is about celebrating the unsung heroes.”

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