American Working Man

January 24th, 2014

This article originally appeared on January 24, 2014 in The Alamedan. Michele Ellson, editor.

Gabriele Bungardt takes a break with her painting by that name, at Spritzers Cafe

Gabriele Bungardt takes a break with her painting by that name, at Spritzers Cafe

In this economy, the barista making your morning latte might have a Masters degree, and the day laborer waiting for work at the curb may have left behind a lucrative profession when they immigrated to the United States. Artist Gabriele Bungardt knows this predicament all too well. Besides being a painter, in her native Germany she was a successful industrial designer, but when she moved to this country in 1983 she spent three years busing tables and cleaning houses to make ends meet, stymied by her limited English.

Gabriele Bungardt, "Daily Wait," Acrylic

Gabriele Bungardt, “Daily Wait,” Acrylic

Watching the news, “the faltering economy, the Occupy Movement, the 99 percent” resonated with Bungardt, inspiring her to create “American Working Man,” a series of more than a dozen acrylic paintings, all completed since 2012. “American Working Man” currently depicts precisely that, but she plans to return to the project, including working women as well. Her intent is for the series to spotlight “just working people,” she said. These works are on display at Spritzers Cafe.

“I’m a very political person and very aware of economic stresses on the population,” Bungardt said. “Since I’m an immigrant I’m really aware of how things changed in this country since I moved here. Especially with Obama everyone was talking about the middle class, but no one was talking about the working class or the working poor. With the Occupy movement it came more and more to my attention, the problems of the working class, especially in the Bay Area.”

Bungardt was already an established professional artist, perhaps best known for her pet portraits. But after opening popUp Gallery in 2012 along with Mi’Chelle Frederick at 1517 Park Street, a venue also occupied by Autobody Fine Art, her creativity took off. “We do new work for every show,” Bungardt said. “I have felt that I have developed in quite a new direction that I probably wouldn’t have gone as fast into, if I didn’t have the audience of the gallery.” This includes dramatic figurative work such as that now on display.

She describes her subjects as “the everyday heroes who scratch out a living and hope their paychecks will stretch far enough to cover the basics. Beyond these exhausted faces, we see the families who depend on them; we imagine their dreams and share in their hopes for a better future.” Without being melodramatic, Bungardt does effectively express just how taxing their labor is. In “End of Day” a dock worker trudges off the work site, head bowed and jeans ripped at both knees, and in “The Long Way Home” a truck driver leans against the cab, dwarfed by his vehicle on a 5’x5′ canvas, rubbing his eyes beneath the brim of his cap.

Gabriele Bungardt, "The Long Way Home," acrylic

Gabriele Bungardt, “The Long Way Home,” acrylic

Bungardt avoids glamorization and romanticizing. These are not propaganda posters of workers cowed under a foreman’s lash. Still, the danger faced by workers in some of the lowest paying jobs is quite real. She photographed workers cutting down her trees and “flying through the air.” Her painting based on that photo shows one of them, tethered but balanced precariously, a chainsaw in one hand while he arches his back and reaches for a branch with the other. He is literally going out on a limb — risking life and limb — for a day’s pay. Bungardt titled that piece “Minimum Wage.”

Gabriele Bungardt, "Minimum Wage," acrylic

Gabriele Bungardt, “Minimum Wage,” acrylic

“American Working Man” will be on display through February 20. Spritzers Cafe is located at 734 Central Avenue. They are open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (510) 995-8644

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

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