Her plein air approach has required Tower to develop a relationship with the scavengers, crack addicts, prostitutes, feral dogs and drug dealers who frequent the abandoned buildings she paints. For protection she often brings along Edgar Carter, a native East St. Louisan who carries a golf club and acts as her bodyguard.

But even with Carter present, danger lurks. Tower paints big. Because she can't cart her canvases back and forth with her, she must stash them on-site, hoping to camouflage them enough to avoid theft. She's had plenty stolen, but her real nemeses are the scrappers who loot the buildings.

"I have to paint fast," she says. "It's heartbreaking to come back and find a whole room missing that you were painting. That happens a lot."

Artist Cindy Tower finds beauty in the crumbling factories of East St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
Artist Cindy Tower finds beauty in the crumbling factories of East St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg

Details

Workplace Series
Friday, February 29 (reception 4-6 p.m.) through April 27 at the Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum, 518 South Fountain Street (on the River Campus of Southeast Missouri State University), Cape Girardeau; 573-651-2260 (www5.semo.edu/museum).
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

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Not always, though. "Workplace Series" displays an intensity of labor rarely encountered in painting today. The paint, heavily applied in bold, muscular strokes, evokes the physicality of the places it represents. There's very little subtlety to Tower's palette. The colors are stark; paint builds up in some areas, drips in others. The effect is that her intricate landscapes of pipes, flywheels, gauges and valves have all the hard-edged energy and tactility of the real thing. Coupled with her roving use of perspective and their massive scale, many of Tower's canvases can be physically disorienting.

Crisp Museum director Stanley Grand writes in the show's catalogue that "[Tower's] mix of deep and shallow space, surface pattern, multiple vanishing points and shifting perspectives often seems claustrophobic, disorienting, and discomforting. [As she says, h]er paintings are 'more about dematerializing and rematerializing. They hold together and fall apart constantly and become abstract and then not, again and again. They pulsate.'"

If Tower's paintings pulsate between representation and abstraction, they positively throb with nostalgia for an age when the human touch was essential to manufacturing. Even as they mourn the passing of the industrial age, they indict the alienation bred of the wired digital here-and-now.

"Everything was machined to make a lot and last forever. There's something that's so beautiful about the making of products, the hand of the human — you don't see that in modern manufacturing," Tower says. "People used to be in communities and try to be excellent craftsmen. Now we're all about planned obsolescence, greed and how to maximize profits."

Filled with social and painterly concerns, Tower's "Workplace Series" is a far cry from her earlier installation work, but a few days spent with Cindy Tower makes one thing clear: She's still very much a performer. Only now, instead of performing in the galleries and museums of New York, her performance includes scouting the hidden locales of Missouri and southern Illinois, retrieving portions of our forgotten past and holding them up for us to see.

"It's a really old-fashioned thing to do, but I feel like I'm finally out in the world and contributing to the community," she says. "Otherwise, we just stay in our little gated communities, Googling each other." 

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