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George Arthur's photos at El Museo

George Arthur's photos of East Side murals are on exhibit at El Museo.

Street Sense

George K. Arthur’s photography of mural art on Buffalo’s East Side conveys an overall message of hope that is also an overall message of defiance in the face of the hard social and economic realities that the photos also reveal.

The photos are currently on exhibit at El Museo Francisco Oller Y Diego Rivera. The exhibit is called Streetscapes and continues through February 25.

None of the mural painters are named, but trained and untrained artists are represented. The paintings range in quality from amateurish to exquisite. Nor is the exquisite category limited to the trained artists.

There are several commemorative murals, including one for “Rob Luckey” in large white lettering over several previous murals. A parent and child, and a city skyline. There’s also one for “Red,” proclaiming the location “Red’s Corner,” and assuring Red that “the community loves you,” and including a family portrait of a man, a woman, and a child, and slightly puzzling motto in the context, “May we stay together forever.”

The most powerful mural is not about death but about life. It shows a father and son, the father lovingly, protectively embracing the boy as if for forever, in a milieu of real and painted weedy vegetation and inhospitable-looking cityscape. The painting is in a rough-hewn style that emphasizes the primal authenticity of the depicted scene and emotion.

Three photos appear to be the work of one painter. Two of the three present overlapping portions of what could be a church worship service or another community meeting. The participants evince a kind of calm and serenity sense, reinforced by such positive affirmational verbal legends as “To give and receive” and “Hope, deliverance, determination, focus.”

The third element in the series is more ambiguous. It shows two portraits that could be alternative views of the same person, one looking more or less straight and straightforwardly out of the picture, the other turned half-face and covered—all but the eyes—in some kind of hood or ski mask. The effect is slightly menacing, yet communicates the same calm and serenity—in both portraits, even the ski mask one—as the church worship or community meeting scenes. All the portraits, in all three segments, are more abstractive than individualized, yet seem to convey significant psychological content.

Then there’s a wonderful old-time-looking double portrait of two trolley car conductors and their trolley. This is the work of a trained artist. Harder to tell whether it is by a professional or amateur is a nearly abstract expressionist depiction of a sunflower in a wild amalgam of blue and yellow and red-brown. In style and subject matter it is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s pot of sunflowers, but without seeming imitative. It has its own substantial verve and vitality.

A mural with something of a mixed message features a rapper in copious bling with the caption “D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs.” A more authentic-sounding work shows a gallery of faces from across the spectrum of ethnicities and the slogan “Jobs with justice.”

Several official advertisement murals promote the New York State Lottery, which obviously spares no effort to derive maximum possible revenues from the poorest element of the citizenry. One of these is on a building so decrepit that the painted advertisement might be the main thing holding it up.

Arthur is a former member of the Buffalo Common Council and was for many years its president. The photos constitute a civic service, in addition to an aesthetic service, in capturing these often remarkable artworks on structures of such ages and conditions that they may not be around much longer.

jack foran

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