Art Werger, “On Shaky Ground,” 1994

Students in Dr. Siddons’ “Art Since 1960” class had the chance this spring to write about a work of art from the OSUMA collection, featured in the exhibition, “Sharing a Journey.” The assignment entailed looking at a work of art for at least 45 minutes, and to write about their close-looking experience, followed by interpretation. Lindsay Gernhardt wrote about Art Werger’s On Shaky Ground from 1994. The following text is excerpted from her paper.

The piece On Shaky Ground by Art Werger is roughly twenty-five inches in height and eighteen inches in width. The picture is a vertical representation of a city corner where an earthquake has and is still occurring in the moment. The compositional layout is from an omniscient view point; meaning from an angle looking down upon the action. Hence, it would seem that the artist created this piece with the intention of putting the viewer in a god-like position or from the perspective of a cameraman capturing the terrifying scene from a taller, adjacent building.

Art Werger (American, b. 1955). "On Shaky Ground," 1986. Etching and aquatint, 23 ½ x 17 ½ inches. Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 98-0038.

Art Werger (American, b. 1955). “On Shaky Ground,” 1994. Etching and aquatint, 23 ½ x 17 ½ inches. Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 98-0038.

The street corner depicted by Werger contains the edge of an apartment building that appears to have a store on the bottom floor. The building, although not fully represented in the scene, takes up the right side of the composition. In the bottom left to middle there is the street itself with a marked crosswalk, traffic lines, and sewer drain. The street has a large crack running through it onto the sidewalk, and the damage of the quake is still in progress as chunks of concrete fall into an abyss the viewer can only partially see. The opening of the crack is widest on the left side and continues to eat away at the sidewalk where a man almost falls to his death but is in the process of being rescued by another.

Art Werger, "On Shaky Ground," detail of lights.

Art Werger, “On Shaky Ground,” detail of lights. (Click to enlarge.)

Other visual elements tell the viewer that this scene takes place at night. Two light posts shine down on the street and sidewalk. A third light post is only noticeable because of its output on the ground, but the viewer cannot see the post itself. This disastrous night scene is very well lit and shows the cast shadows of the people, the falling debris, and knocked over trash can and mail box. Four cars move on the street with three sets of red taillights glowing. Two of these cars are only partially shown at the top of the composition implying movement. Werger successfully conveys this idea of motion right along with the people’s reactions to the earthquake and its devastation.

Werger’s portrayal of this night scene is representational but not photographically rendered. How the viewer is set up to look at the piece makes it seem like a snapshot, but the coloring and somewhat animated style Werger uses is entirely unique and abstract. On a first glance, the picture looks as though it is a pencil drawing because of the grainy quality of the shading and coloring of objects, but it is not. The colors he uses all appear to have a blue or gray tint mixed in which makes the piece unrealistic compared to natural coloring.

Art Werger, "On Shaky Ground," detail. (Click to enlarge.)

Art Werger, “On Shaky Ground,” detail. (Click to enlarge.)

In order to render his subject, Werger had to make the work mostly representational so the viewers could grasp the idea of an earthquake. The fact that the audience is positioned to look down upon this scene creates a separation from the devastation that is taking place, but at the same time, it includes the viewer in the moment. Werger’s choice in angling the view of the composition so that the viewer becomes God or cameraman adds to its uniqueness and creates speculation as to why he chose such an arrangement. The color choice is also intentional and adds an eerie feeling to the piece. Ultimately, instead of using a more naturalized color scheme or having completely photo-rendered people and objects, Werger’s highly stylized rendering puts the horror of a severe natural disaster in a kid’s storybook manner.

Although there are many objects that give the viewer information within the piece, no object or person is individually very detailed. Instead, they are smooth and plain. In doing this, Werger juxtaposes a terrifying moment with a storybook quality giving the piece a disturbing tone that intrigues the viewer, whereas if it had just been a photograph or too realistically rendered in a straight on ground level format, it would not have been as successful as a piece.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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