A review of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "1934: A New Deal for Artists," now at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash.

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The painting is striking both as a work of art and as a captured moment in history.

Ray Strong’s “Golden Gate Bridge,” painted in 1934 when the bridge was in the early stages of construction, has a simultaneous heft and sweep that must have lifted the spirits of anyone who got a glimpse of it in the midst of the Great Depression.

Here, it says, is something still happening in a nation where everything else has ground to an economic halt — a meeting of man-made ingenuity with magnificent natural setting in a landmark soon to be known throughout the world.

“Golden Gate Bridge” is one of 55 paintings in “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum that is making its only West Coast stop at Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum through Jan. 9. It’s well worth the drive north, both for its artistic riches and its historical interest.

The exhibit, which opened at the Smithsonian in February 2009, is also unexpectedly timely. It was developed as a 75th-anniversary celebration of artworks created in early 1934 for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, a precursor of the WPA). But by the time the show opened in Washington, D.C., our own economic downturn had hit us and many of the issues it addressed struck uncomfortably close to home.

The show in Bellingham is the entire exhibit from the Smithsonian, says Whatcom Museum curator of art Barbara Matilsky. It includes portraits, urban street scenes, industrial landscapes, rural panoramas, mountain vistas — the whole, varied “American Scene” that the PWAP encouraged artists to portray.

With the rise and dominance of abstract art in the decades that followed, the steady-eyed observation of American realities that “1934” highlights came to be scorned, Matilsky says. “Representational regionalism: Nobody wanted to look at it!”

But while the “American Scene” theme is evident throughout the show, the variety of approaches taken is impressive.

“You can see the differences of style,” Matilsky says. “Within that genre of ‘social realism,’ there’s a lot of play that the artist has.”

The “American People” section of the exhibit, alone, covers a gamut of moods. Kenneth M. Adams’ oil on canvas, “Juan Duran,” shapes the planes and colors of its subject’s face in such a way as to bring out his air of stoic resilience without minimizing the hard knocks he has endured.

Ivan Albright’s “The Farmer’s Kitchen,” by contrast, is a tour-de-force of horror. (Albright, it should be noted, is the artist who supplied the gruesome portrait in the attic for the 1940s film version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”) Albright’s farm wife, sitting by her stove, looks worn to the point of exhaustion, her face collapsed, her knuckles gnarled and swollen. This isn’t social realism but some harrowing hyper-real mutation a step or two beyond it.

Along with individual portraits there are group scenes that vividly evoke the flavor of ordinary life continuing under difficult circumstances. Lily Furedi’s “Subway” is a vibrantly composed “snapshot” of New York subway riders snoozing, gossiping and sneaking glimpses at their neighbors (or their neighbor’s newspaper).

Millard Sheets’ “Tenement Flats” portrays a bustle of laundry activity in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood, razed in the 1950s to make way for downtown skyscrapers. The crisscross of tenement balconies and vertiginous rise toward old Victorian mansions on the hilltop make for a lively backdrop to Sheets’ fluttering laundry and busy female figures.

Images of labor, of course, figure prominently — and some are stunning.

In Tyrone Comfort’s “Gold Is Where You Find It,” the hammering power of a miner’s drill and the heaviness of the rock-shelves and log-supports over his head are powerfully contrasted with his fluid, straining musculature. Shadow and dim light intertwine, obscuring his facial features as if the task at hand is wiping out his identity. Douglass Crockwell takes the opposite approach in “Paper Workers,” “rectangularizing” his human figures as to make them mere extensions of the machines they’re operating.

Humans scarcely figure in Strong’s “Golden Gate Bridge,” with its view of newly laid concrete piers on the San Francisco side and the rising red tower on the Marin County shore, or in Austin Mecklem’s “Engine House and Bunkers,” a kind of visual freight-terminal symphony by a painter born in Colfax, Wash., who spent most of his career on the East Coast.

Rural scenes — the barn and sheds in “The Farm” by Seattle artist Kenjiro Nomura (1896-1956), the tilting mailboxes in “Cross Road — Still Life” by Paul Benjamin — hew closer to human scale, even when no actual people appear in them.

Moments of true transcendence come with Paul Kauvar Smith’s “The Sky Pond” (a ruddily luminous panorama of a glacier-fed lake high in the Colorado Rockies) and Charles Reiffel’s “Road in the Cuyamacas” (an olive-green California mountainscape of near-Van Gogh intensity). In Ross Dickinson’s masterpiece “Valley Farms,” arid California hills bear heavily down on fragile fields, houses, roads and bridges. A menacing pall of wildfire smoke on the horizon provides a subtle crowning touch.

Hints of artistic movements to come manifest themselves in curious ways in the show, despite its social-realist strain. In Ilya Bolotowsky’s “In the Barber Shop,” you can see the future abstract painter in the distorting slant he brings to his everyday scene.

The photorealism of Richard Estes’ 1960s work is fully present in “Underpass — Binghamton, New York” by an unidentified artist. This starkly lit nighttime image, painted over a photograph printed on canvas, couldn’t be more clinically precise. Intended to document an improvement in urban infrastructure (a four-lane street rerouted under train tracks), it captures an emergent cast-in-concrete world devoid of — and seemingly inhospitable to — any living soul.

While a few artists’ names in the show will be familiar, most are not.

Matilsky sees this as an asset: “A lot of the time when you go to the museum, you’re just looking at the label. … Here it doesn’t matter, because you don’t really know who they are. So you just concentrate on the artwork.”

The number of female and minority artists is notable. Among the latter, Earle Richardson delivers perhaps the most arresting image. His “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture” is a stylized rendering of cotton-field workers. It’s dismaying to learn Richardson died at 23, one year after painting it.

Not every work in the show is a masterpiece. A few seem merely illustrative or even cartoonish. But the overall standard is unexpectedly high.

Another surprise: Not every artist who took a PWAP commission did so out of economic need. Some who made good livings accepted the PWAP’s humble pay rates or even donated paintings, as Millard Sheets noted in a 1986 interview, “just to bolster up the program.”

Ann Prentice Wagner, in the show’s catalog, provides informative mini-essays on each item and artist in the show. Roger G. Kennedy’s introduction eloquently establishes the dismal context in which the work was done. The country was desperate, with unemployment and suicide figures on the rise. Kennedy cites Frank D. Roosevelt’s 1936 “Rendezvous with destiny” speech (one of many FDR recordings you can hear at “1934”) in which the president contended that Americans needed “not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”

This exhibit shows how some of that “something” was conjured into being by sheer fighting spirit and force of public will.

Note: The Whatcom Museum has recently reopened its Old City Hall building at 121 Prospect St. There, visitors can view “Artifactual,” an exhibit of historical objects from the museum’s permanent collection.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com