The Color of War
A timely and thoughtful exhibition, "The Art of Aggression" at the Moore Space refracts contemporary political art through a prism of global terrorism and conflict.
Curators Jean Crutchfield and Robert Hobbs suggest that art can be subversive beyond a mere illustration depicting horror or violence. Artists Wayne Gonzales, Emily Jacir, An-My Lê, Mark Lombardi, Dominic McGill, Mary Ellen Mark, Steve Mumford, Josh On and Futurefarmers, Martha Rosler, and Moises Saman eschew the inflammatory in favor of reasoned and poignant expression as they examine the culture of war.
Several of these artists journey to the heart of their work via detached, analytical paths reminiscent of the increasingly complex machinations that characterize global warfare today. As institutions and corporations exert a greater and more subtle influence on daily life, these artists have taken an investigative approach, endeavoring to unravel the threads that weave together the fabric of empire.
The curators demonstrate that artists are the flies in the ointment of empire, the collective conscience and whistle-blowers for the military and industrial powers that be, persistently knocking on the closed-door proceedings at the highest echelons of government and business.
Dominic McGill's The Zapruder Covert Waltz is an elaborate drawing that graphs the myriad theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Around the central figure of a large tree, its roots visible, McGill swirls text in whimsical, hand-lettered ribbons that quote policy on Cuba and biographical data about Lee Harvey Oswald. The titular waltz pertains to the familiar dance in which partners twirl repeatedly around and around, treading a repetitive path on the dance floor. Anecdotes, innuendoes, and conspiracy theories swirl around the extremities of the tree motif. This work conveys a sense of an unstable center, employing dark humor to reflect the confusion of the murder and its aftermath.
Mapping the hidden relationships among power brokers whose decisions affect world events satisfies a desire for accountability among those who feel marginalized by government and big business. Mark Lombardi's lyrical drawings play connect-the-dots, forming lacy constellations that link business transactions in the military-industrial complex. With information obsessively culled and cross-referenced entirely from public-record sources, Lombardi outlines the six degrees separating the players of banking scandals and their corporate and political allies. Using a highly abstract visual language, the artist chillingly observes that "government is only a tool for executing corporate policy." Lombardi hanged himself in his New York studio five years ago, at the age of 48, shortly before his work received tremendous recognition from the art world.
Another artist using data to draw a picture is Josh On and Futurefarmers, a San Francisco-based new-media cooperative. They Rule is a Website that invites users to visualize the overlapping affiliations of corporate honchos who control the world's most powerful companies. Providing a snapshot of the year 2004, www.theyrule.netoffers the disclaimer that membership in these "oligopolies" is continually in flux.
In a related work, On offers an antidote to the violence of war video games. Antiwargame mimics a primitive, low-res video game in which players begin as president and then blunder their way through a series of global warfare challenges, resulting in their ultimate assassination.
The photographers in the exhibition employ the camera as a mirror with which they document and critique the reality of war by emphasizing its true texture. Moises Saman uses fairly conventional compositions to reveal the "appalling beauty" of wounded soldiers, exploding clouds, and other eruptions pock-marking a war-torn land. Mary Ellen Mark uses her camera to fix an unblinking gaze on a maimed Iraqi war veteran.
An-My Lê, a Vietnamese refugee, channels a "Vietnam of the mind." Her Small Wars photographs depict Vietnam War re-enactments performed by vets in North Carolina and Virginia. The staged combat in the American woodlands appears almost picturesque, as are the choreographic movements of tanks in her series 29 Palms. These depictions of the "theater" of war illustrate the catharsis sought years later by veterans in their struggle to reconcile the romance and pathos of the cult of war.
Also on view at the Moore Space is "Sketches from the Front, Drawing from Life: Steve Mumford in Iraq, 2003-2004." Mumford embedded himself with American military forces in Baghdad while on assignment for the e-zine. Inspired by Winslow Homer's depictions of the Civil War, Mumford captured the stress of combatants and the clash of cultures on the streets via vibrant watercolors. Painted on the spot in lively washes -- with ink outlines added later to fill in details and patterns -- Mumford's work has the immediacy of courtroom illustrations. From crouching positions, with partially obscured views, the artist created compositions as concise as snapshots and offers a contrast to the photographic reportage to which we have grown accustomed.
The works featured in "The Art of Aggression" do not view the wages of war from the distant vantage point of history, but rather are drawn from the moment, potent and palpable. They illustrate that while combat participants are directly victimized, civilian life and culture is irrevocably scarred by each world conflict.
On display at the nearby Ingalls & Associates gallery is "Eyewall," recent paintings by San Antonio artist Nate Cassie -- a collection that also embodies an aesthetic response to aggression. Cassie's work is highly decorative and uses a palette of sorbet colors, with surfaces activated by crisscross lines that form dense grids. Scraped and sanded layers form a translucent network of drips that alternately resist or desist gravity.
Cassie's chosen titles illuminate the origin of the works. The paintings are named after hurricanes that struck Florida and Texas during years in which Muhammad Ali either fought matches in those states, received a suspension, or regained his license. Other works share the names of storms that hit either during the year boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter terminated his career or the year of his release from jail. This is quite a macho subtext for rather feminine paintings.
The artist draws parallels between the pugilist's inclination toward violence within the acceptable parameters of sport -- in the boxing ring, a square -- and the destruction unfurled by a storm as it ravages the earth's surface -- on canvas, also a square. Cassie echoes a storm system filled with moisture, using skeins of thin, glossy enamel to indicate rapid, fluid movement. The eyes of the storm are painted on the surface of four works, Beulah, Isabel, Fern, and Gloria, markings that resemble aggressively planted lipstick smudges. The viewer's eye attempts to penetrate the density of the picture plane, but is ultimately obstructed. The feverish aerial views are equal parts Fight Club and ice-cream sundae, whether or not they make reference to storms or boxers.
A polyglot artist whose previous works include photography, drawing, and sculpture with a variety materials -- from sugar cubes to insulation slabs to cast resin -- Cassie remains ever attentive to the subtle relationships among perception, conception, and presentation. The paintings featured in "Eyewall" exert an energetic presence that is analogous to both the boxer and the storm.
Also showing at Ingalls & Associates is "Dark Match," a series of video stills by Damian Rojo that explores the radical chic of boxing.
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