Now on view at the List Gallery is Tabitha Arnold’s “Workshop of the World,” which will remain on display until Feb. 25. Through the blend of various mediums, Arnold created artworks that effortlessly speak to the world’s most current social, political, and economic issues.
In her artist talk, held in LPAC cinema on Tuesday, Jan. 25, Arnold expressed how her life has impacted the art she creates. When studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Arnold explained the shift in her artistic process as she originally studied painting at PAFA. She explained feeling conflicted in her work as she struggled with understanding why the world would need more classical painters. She began feeling “like [she] was making art to impress someone in a far-off, elite institution.” It was in this period of confusion that she visited Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, a Philadelphia exhibit that displayed pieces of cloth draped from the ceiling with which visitors could walk through and interact with. Made as a direct response to Philadelphia’s history of industrial textile manufacturing, its labor intensive nature inspired Arnold to create her own form of “labor intensive art.” Taking inspiration also from Sheila Hicks, an American artist that experiments with weaving techniques and sculptural textile, Arnold began to look towards non-paint art forms. However, she was most influenced by Afghan war rugs, rugs made during the Soviet occupation in the 1970s that depict the unstable environment surrounding Afghan civilians and weavers. These “jarring portraits of hardships” shown through a delicate medium spoke to Arnold as she began to create her own version of these war rugs to help process the political atmosphere in Philadelphia. It is these tapestries that take center stage in the List Gallery’s exhibition.
Using the backside of a punch needle, Arnold has created tapestries that are easily legible, part of her attempt to make art that does not require an intensive art education to understand. This accessibility is crucial to her work, as her work has become her way to express her worldly observations into an art medium, showcasing city architecture, street scenes, and city decay.
In a sense, Arnold’s art has become a medium through which she can vent her frustrations. She calls it “felt therapy.” Taking more inspiration from Soviet street murals and Christian iconography, Arnold took from her own life to create works that appropriated biblical imagery to argue against capitalism and American patriotism.
On display in the front room of the List Gallery is her 2021 tapestry Picket. In this work, her shift from passive (images of city architecture and decay) to explicit political messaging is visible. Here, Scabby the Rat, a symbol of union protest and strike, takes center stage, surrounded by images of unionists protesting and striking. This tapestry acknowledges and celebrates the strength found in collective power, fighting against the “myth of individuality” which we have been made to believe in. When describing this piece, Arnold explained that by making it, she wanted to create something that captured the feeling of walking the picket line alongside fellow strikers, as in doing so, you realize you are not alone in your struggle. “You are the Union,” she explained.
This feeling of collective power against a higher individual power is also seen in her two tapestries in the rear gallery Workshop of the World I and Workshop of the World II (2022). These two pieces were made to be displayed in the Glen Foerd mansion in Philadelphia. Foerd made his fortune leading a pure finding company. However the work was done by the workers who would search for and collect feces to be sold to be later used to dry leather. While Foerd made a fortune, these workers would receive an extremely small amount of money. As Arnold explained, this set of tapestries was made to show the martyrdom of the working class, as they do dangerous and uncomfortable work just so they can pay rent and survive while their bosses reap the benefits, doing minimal work. The cutouts within the tapestry make it appear almost like a sculpture, in which the ugly underbelly of the pure finding institution can be exposed. She also explained her desire to depict Workshop of the World II as a sort of Catholic Hell. She wanted to highlight the contradictory nature of Christianity within the workshop. Both the workshop workers and Foerd were religious. For the workers, going to mass on Sundays and praying throughout the day provided a sense of relief for the workers. For Foerd, it provided a cover for his actions against his workers. As Arnold described, this scene depicted hell because “if there is a hell, it is for billionaires.” Workshop of the World I, on the other hand, depicts a scene of a Christian Paradise, as Arnold depicts the common capitalist ideal that hard work is morally virtuous. It delivers the message that if you work hard, you can earn your way into a good life, even maybe into Heaven.
Arnold’s work is politically charged in a way that empowers the viewers to join in the movements depicted. Her works remind viewers that they are not alone in their struggles and there is power in collective action. Arnold uses her work to highlight the lives and efforts of those that history will try to erase, further empowering their efforts. Besides being on view in the List Gallery, her work can also be found on her website. “I hope the message is helpful in some way,” she ended her gallery talk, and helpful it is. In a world in which individualism is promoted as our only hope of survival, Arnold’s works remind us that it is in collective action and support that we can live.