CLOSE LOOKS: "MANHOLE" BY EDWARD MELCARTH
Click on the arrow below to listen to an audio description of the featured work. Click on the transcript button to read the description.
An overhead view of a manhole dominates Edward Melcarth’s 70 x 70-inch painting of the same name. Two almost life-size men rest at the hole’s edge, their legs disappearing into its depths. The man on the right side of the hole sits on a ladder and looks over his left shoulder. His muscular arms extend wide from his body, mirroring the curve of the manhole’s perimeter. His right leg is bent, and the top of his thigh catches a patch of sunlight. The bright white shirt he wears, the brightest area of the canvas, stands out against his tannish-brown pants. A large yellow glove envelopes his left hand, while its mate lies below his outstretched right hand. Dark brown hair spills out from the front of the man’s green cap. From the viewer’s vantage point directly above the scene, his body mimics the shape of a cross.
A smaller man dressed in a bright red shirt occupies the left half of the manhole. He reaches his right arm outward and behind him, and his palm pushes against the hole’s edge, as though he is using his hand to propel his body downward. This man bends over toward his left, and only the right side of his face is visible. The upturned collar of his shirt hides his mouth and chin, but his blonde hair catches the light of the sun directly above him. Viewed together, the two men lean in opposite directions, creating a sense of movement around the manhole’s edge.
A collection of objects lies around the ground into which the manhole is inset. At the top right of the painting, two bananas, a pear, an apple, and a sandwich emerge from a brown lunchbox. A red slice of tomato and green leaf of lettuce appear at the sandwich’s edge. On the ground to the right of the box, two cigarettes spill out of a tan cigarette carton. A large piece of crumpled white paper lies below these objects, separating them from the cracked gray and tan surface of the ground.
The textured cover of the manhole occupies the bottom right corner of the canvas. Pieces of paper partially obscure its surface, as does the collection of tools that rest upon it. A hammer extends from behind the larger man’s left arm, its head resting on the surface. The wooden handle of the hammer intersects its curved metallic head, producing a shape that evokes a hammer and sickle. A pair of pliers lies open to the left of the hammer next to a red and gray hand-cranked drill. A flathead screwdriver and the curved handle of a saw complete the tableau. Positioned next to the cross-like form of the larger man’s body, the tools evoke the instruments associated with Jesus’s crucifixion by the ancient Romans, often referred to as the Instruments of the Passion or, in Latin, the Arma Christi.
On the opposite side of the canvas, a tan rope coils around itself. Light catches one end of the rope, transforming its fibers into a brighter, lighter golden hue. The rope is almost as thick as the side rails of the ladder. Like the muscles in the larger man’s arms and neck, the twists of the rope are well-defined. Much of the rope sits on the ground around the manhole, but one of its ends dangles down into hole and disappears.
A tarp covers the ground in the top left of the painting, its color similar to that of the rope below. Much of the wrinkled fabric lies in shadow, but in a section similar in size to the smaller man’s torso, sunlight catches the highpoints of the tarp. The glowing fabric dangles over the riveted edge of the manhole, obscuring the left edge of the man’s red shirt. A grayish-white bird rests in the shadowed portion of the tarp, its wings stretching outward and behind its body. Surrounded by symbols of the crucifixion, like the tools, ladder, and rope, the bird evokes the presence of the Holy Spirit, often represented in Christian imagery as a dove.
I see two men, hard at work, one perched at the top of the ladder, ready to descend down, down, down. He is tense, but sure of himself, in his prime. His companion is already halfway down. Is the companion sitting on the ledge? Stepping on the ladder? Lowering himself down? I imagine that the workers are tough — strong, confident, and a little bit worn. I see tools carelessly tossed aside, and the figure in white looking for what he needs next. I also see a lunchbox and package of cigarettes, just waiting for a lunch break.
I see an image that goes around and around and around. The whole scene seems to be spiraling downward, swirling down the manhole as if it were a drain. The ladder leads me straight down into the darkness below the two workers. The workers are part in, part out of the manhole’s shadow. The bird in the top left corner, too delicate for this grimy scene, is flying around in the circle with everything else. I have a bird’s eye view, too, staring down into the manhole. The rock that I am looking down on makes it feel like if I were to join the workers, I would feel rough concrete with a layer of grime and hear the dull roar of a cityscape around me.
- Emma Johnson is an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill and an Ackland Student Guide at the Ackland Art Museum.
Edward Melcarth (1914-1973), Manhole, 1959, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, Gift of Kip and Astrid Forbes, in honor of Alice Walton, 2014.15. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.
The unseen worker who is in the background and quite literally under the ground making sure communities work. Makes me think of the “essential worker” term that we heard so much during the COVID pandemic. These workers are often ignored and taken for granted. They are often young and from marginalized communities. Their safety was and is often still overlooked. Manholes are considered confined spaces which are extremely hazardous. Even today with all the safety regulations and safety measures that are required, workers entering confined spaces still die and are injured. In this piece of art, you can see all these issues, but it also conveys that these young men are ready to work, with lunch provisions and no complaints, and that for them this is just another day at the office.
- Cathy Brennan is the executive director of Environment, Health and Safety at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The call came in at 3:10 a.m., twenty-one minutes after the baby stopped crying. Sewer overflow on Main Street. It had been raining all night. The water never stops. It can’t ever stop. Whether coming or going, it’s our job to keep it moving. Lives depend on it, including mine.
Miles and miles of underground networks connecting our community. Water connects, but not without work. Miles and miles, one foot at time. Little time to eat. Work hard. Work together. Work safe. Lives depend on it, including mine.
- Mary Tiger is the Strategic Initiatives Manager for the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA).
- Take an inventory of the scene. Who and what is depicted?
- How do the lines and shapes draw your eyes around the canvas?
- How, if at all, does the painting’s bird’s eye perspective affect your interpretation of the people and the scene depicted?
- Melcarth took ordinary subjects and rendered them “extraordinary.” Focus on the people represented here. What about them appears ordinary? In what ways might they be characterized as extraordinary?
- Learn more about this painting in the Ackland’s About the Art guide.
- Read about Edward Melcarth in this Hyperallergic article that draws connections between the artist’s identity as an openly gay man and supporter of communism, his realist painting style, and the fact that his work was largely overlooked by the Western art historical canon after his death.
- The article above highlights two exhibitions from 2018 — Edward Melcarth: Points of View at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, and Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky — that have helped to bring the artist’s figurative work into conversations about a period that was dominated by abstract expressionism.
- Read Queer Possibility by Margaret Middleton, which critiques the continued erasure of queer narratives in museums and explores various strategies for museums to use to interpret and uplift queer content, queer histories, and queerness.
- Learn about a gift of over 100 Melcarth works from The Forbes Collection to the Faulkner Morgan Archive, a nonprofit that “shares Kentucky’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer history.”
- Read about the Sewer Structure Art Project in nearby Wake Forest, North Carolina. The project is a partnership between The Wake Forest Public Art Commission, the Greenways Advisory Board, and the Recreation Advisory Board, which turns above-ground sewer structures into works of art. Click here to explore a map with images and text about the artworks.
- Watch and read about a similar project in Raleigh, North Carolina where a public art project brought paintings of native North Carolina butterflies to sewer manhole risers along a greenway.
Generously lent by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as part of the Art Bridges’ Collection Loan Partnership initiative.