The art of conflict
Economic meltdown has become the key issue of the presidential election campaign, but several provocative artworks at the American University Museum make a persuasive case for refocusing attention on the Iraq war. Part of three new exhibits in the galleries of the Katzen Arts Center, they continue a long artistic tradition of highlighting the human tragedy of warfare through narrative and metaphor, with some works directly related to historical precedents.
On the museum’s top floor, “Sandow Birk: The Depravities of War” sharply traces the course of the Iraq war, from troop training and insurgent bombings to prisoner abuse and veterans’ homecomings. These 15 monumental works - each four by eight feet - are realistically rendered through the age-old technique of woodcuts printed on Japanese paper. They don’t mention the Iraq war by name but their detailed scenes of burning mosques, 9/11 newspaper headlines and a Senate hearing leave no doubts as to their subject matter.
Mr. Birk, a Long Beach, Calif., artist, combines images from television and newspaper reports, but draws his composition and technique from a much earlier tradition of wartime art. His inspiration came from Frenchman Jacques Callot’s 1633 series of engravings, “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War,” depicting the atrocities committed by marauding armies during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.
Among the treats of the show are 18 reproductions of Callot’s small engravings and a 17thcentury book of his prints, on loan from the University of Virginia, that is open to the scene of a burning convent. Comparing them to Mr. Birk’s woodcuts reveals striking similarities between the two, down to the placement of the military recruiting tables.
The parallel imagery suggests warfare follows its own rules of engagement, from combat to punishment and death, no matter where and when it is waged. It effectively suggests the Iraq war is no different from the 17th-century carnage in its methods and madness.
Another artist who admired Callot’s prints was the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya. His 1810-20 series, “The Disasters of War,” depicts the travesties committed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies during the French invasion of Spain and has continued to be a powerful source for modern-day protest art.
While those prints aren’t on view at the Katzen, another disturbing grouping of Goya’s etchings called the “Disparates” (Absurdities) is arrayed in the museum as part of an exhibit co-sponsored with the Embassy of Spain. Created between about 1819 and 1824, these dark visions were meant to be satirical attacks on the oppressive political climate of the era. Their grotesque figures - a dancing giant, a two-headed woman and monkish men in sacks - are similar to Goya’s nightmarish “Black Paintings” with which he decorated his house.
Like the Callot prints in Mr. Birk’s exhibit, the Goya engravings are meant to serve a comparative purpose. They are displayed next to works on paper by contemporary Spanish artist Ricardo Calero whose site-specific works were undertaken in Goya’s birthplace of Fuendetodos.
Intended as a homage to Goya’s “extraordinary ability to see beneath the appearances,” according to the exhibit text, several of the prints and collages were made from papers buried in the fields and under rocks where Goya once walked. These delicate images combine traces of earth and plants with embossed words, but lack the social bite of the “Disparates.”
Another of Mr. Calero’s works is made from stacks of paper shot through with bullet holes. Its implied violence is dissipated by the lacy holes left by the gunfire. The connection between these insipid works and Goya’s depictions of wartime firing squads is tenuous at best.
On the museum’s second level, yet another exhibit, “Close Encounters: Facing the Future,” addresses the war on terror and other political issues through a grab bag of works by obscure and well-known artists. The disparate pieces range from Roger Shimomura’s humorous take on racial stereotyping to the videos by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese of their ice sculptures at the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Spelling out the “democracy” in frozen letters, the Ligorano/Reese melting artwork symbolizes our nation’s vanishing freedoms in the post-9/11 age and, as documented in the video, was well received by conventioneers of both parties.
Some of the more interesting pieces in the exhibit are shown in a van parked on the upper terrace of the museum. This movable gallery is the work of the Floating Lab Collective, a District-based group that treats art and architecture as social engagement. As documented inside the van, their projects include mobile book repositories, shelters for day workers in Falls Church and miniature houses made by Latino laborers in Baltimore.
The highlight of the “Close Encounters” exhibit is an installation by Yoko Ono on the museum’s top floor. It consists of 47 plywood coffins of various sizes lined up within the entire space of the gallery. Sprouting from a square opening in each of these sealed containers is a ficus tree where the head of the deceased should be.
With its rows of boxes, the piece, titled “Ex It,” might be seen as a protest against the government’s ban on photography of coffins filled with the American soldiers who died in Iraq. Its combination of trees and boxes recalls both a garden and a cemetery to offer a meditation on the cycle of life and death. This simple message is refreshing amid a dense exhibit filled with ideas about our nation’s direction.