John Puglia was witness to what may have been the last great gasp of American manufacturing. His new show at Akron's We Gallery — Pipefitters, Porn & P.B.R. — memorializes the mostly nameless blue-collar workers of the 1970s and 1980s in paintings and prints. These are the men behind the rubber of Rubber City.
Now a creative director for WhiteSpace Creative, the artist spent four years in factories while working his way through the University of Akron. Since then, Puglia has been assembling an oral and pictorial history of his hometown's blue-collar lives.
Everything about Puglia's work is meant to honor the heyday he remembers — especially his choice of materials. The sumi ink that dominates the series' black, white, and red palette is intended to recall the fine black industrial dust that permeated Akron throughout Puglia's childhood.
Many of the images in We's show are painted from photographs snapped by Puglia himself or recovered from bars and abandoned work benches. Some of the characters are recognizable as types. The six husky men raising a toast in "Midnight Poker at the Tip Top" could belong to any time or culture where men bond over booze. But the figures are dated by their striped sweaters, thick-rimmed glasses, and stacked cans of PBR.
Other pieces are as intimate as gossip. "Earl's Mercury," for example, depicts a mason jar of quicksilver, a salute of sorts to a fellow worker with the eccentric habit of hoarding mercury — at least until his death, at which time his collection was confiscated by a hazmat-suited sterilization team.
"Kevin," shown above, packs a wallop with or without knowledge of its subject's circumstances. Shown crowded into a small space between factory parts, Puglia's subject operates a machine that dominates his surroundings. His mouth gapes open and his dark eyes bulge as if pleading or in pain. It's no surprise to hear Puglia say the painting is based on a photo of a young man who eventually committed suicide.
Yet Puglia remains even-handed, neither pitying nor romanticizing his subjects. He shows us not just the hardship of the workplace, but also the joys, vices, and mercury-hoarding eccentricities of the workers. It's less an homage than a revival in living ink.
An opening reception, featuring a performance by post-rock instrumental band If These Trees Could Talk, will be held Saturday, August 4, from 7 to 10 p.m. at 20 North High St. in Akron. Call 330-252-0988 or go to thewegallery.com for more info.