Image Analysis – PD

Exploring the world of brewing in Newark post the 1950’s proves to be very difficult. The opinions of the mass-producing machine that is Anheuser Busch, the general over-industrialization of the neighborhood, from people in Newark, however, is plenty. A painting done by artist Valeri Larko in 1999, titled “Mt. Olive Cemetery” produces one of the opinions about Anheuser Busch, and industrialization, at the tail end of the 20th century. Her painting suggests Newark, or the specifically the Anheuser Busch Brewing plant, is over glorified as a mecca of industrialization, producing a landscape which is riddled with abandonment, and due to those previous assumptions, it also harms the environment.

            These central most dominant figure in the painting, which is produced of oil on linen, stretching forty-six inches in width and twenty-six inches in height, is the almost mountainous landscape in the background. It is made to be important due to its color contrast, being the only figure, which is reddish-brown against a gray sky and among green foliage. Larko describes seeing the distilling towers and “the yellow stacks of a factory, transformed by sunlight … [which] remind [her] of a cathedral”[1]. This is no coincidence given the religious iconography in a cemetery, but it also speaks to the worship of big production and industry in Newark. The stark white cross with a crucified Jesus juxtaposed on the right side of the brewery, at about the same size, suggests this worship. The big white cross is intentionally also contrasted against dark green foliage in order to suggest the similarity between the martyrship of Jesus and the way big industry has given Newark its name across the globe, when it was once one of the busiest ports on the East Coast of America.

            Valeri Larko was initially drawn to this space because at the time of this painting, she was focusing her work on abandoned places in New Jersey. She has said at this time of her artistic career, she “often approach this subject matter [abandoned spaces] with a sense of irony and humor”[2] With this she means that the areas of Newark which were once rich with business and industrial glory, are now stand-alone areas of the city’s landscape. These places, like the Anheuser Busch Brewery, are perhaps like ghosts from a different, more momentous era, which is why this particular painting is located in a cemetery, among tombstones. The issue of abandoned areas in Newark was not something Larko criticized on her own. Newark is becoming a ghost town, the abandoned homes and lots in Newark continue to push residents out, and residents, “can’t take this anymore”[3]. According to Newark’s abandoned property registry, in 2017, there are more than two thousand abandoned or vacant properties in the city. Properties with no legal occupants for six months are considered vacant; those in need of rehabilitation, behind on property taxes or threatening community safety are defined as abandoned[4]. Residents are fed up with the constant hike in taxes especially when their tax money does not warrant efforts to clean up the city. The theme of abandonment, in the painting, is evident in that the Anheuser Busch Brewing facility is the only complex in the background’s landscape. Although it is not abandoned, and has been in business in Newark since 1951, it stands alone on a large lot. There is a very intentional lack of humanity and Larko playfully suggests, “two rusted tanks take on a human quality as they lean together in an ancient embrace,”[5] as if the massive structure itself has engulfed human-like qualities.

            It is very hard to miss the large plumes coming out of the stacks of the Anheuser Busch Brewery in the painting. They are large and presented as very thick due to their lack of transparency throughout. Being a Realist artist, Larko does not add fluff or additional emphasis to her painting. Therefore, it would be true to believe the smog coming from the brewery was indeed thick at the time, being comprised of the release of gaseous byproduct, usually steam, during the brewing process. There is also a lack of foliage and anything green alongside the brewery. All of the trees are contained in the empty cemetery. The author of an article about Larko’s gallery opening in 2010 described Larko’s pieces of the time, as or years after, as a commentary on how “we live amid tomorrow’s junk today, and Larko’s paintings predict the place where our culture will soon arrive”[6]. Producing art in the late 20th century with themes about the mistreatment of the environment, whether through pollution or the increase of abandoned spaces, “Valeri Larko paints rusted distilling towers, ruined industrial interiors and sprawling piles of discarded refrigerators, computer monitors or car mufflers, all of them dinged or stained or rotting like discolored bruises, and leavened only by the occasional patch of blue sky”[7]. This gloomy idea of what the future holds if we continue these over-industrialized practices was what inspired many of Larko’s paintings, and “Mt Olive Cemetary” was not an exception.

            The development of an industrial ghost town presented by Valeri Larko’s painting “Mt Olive Cemetary” produces a bleak image of the future of Newark as experienced by an artist in 1999. These key elements in the painting resonate with how Anheuser Busch, had to change their branding strategy and how they produced in order to compete with smaller, sustainable breweries, and the developing beer community’s culture in America. Current beer culture puts sustainability at the very core of their business, some breweries such as Flying Fish started operating with sustainability in mind as soon as their began brewing in the nineties. Overall, in postwar United States, specifically at the turn of the century, this painting suggests the need for change and social action in areas like Newark where issues of environmental damage and landscape abandonment are ever present.


[1] Urban and Industrial Early Paintings. Accessed March 22, 2019. http://www.valerilarko.com/valeri_contents/galleries/industrial/industrial_paintings.html.

[2] ibid

[3] Yi, Karen. “This N.J. Block Is Dying, One Abandoned Property at a Time.” Nj.com. September 03, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2019. https://www.nj.com/essex/2017/09/newark_abandoned_properties_pushing_longtime_homeo.html.

[4] ibid

[5] Urban and Industrial Early Paintings. Accessed March 22, 2019. http://www.valerilarko.com/valeri_contents/galleries/industrial/industrial_paintings.html.

[6] Staff, Star-Ledger. “For Valeri Larko, New Jersey’s Declining Manufacturing Sites and Salvage Yards Make a Fertile Landscape.” Nj.com, Nj.com, 2 May 2010, http://www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/2010/05/for_valeri_larko_new_jerseys_d.html.

[7] ibid