Pain by Numbers
As a kid daydreaming in Mrs. Bean’s fifth grade class, I had no idea of what the future would hold. A baby-boomer, born just past mid-century, I haphazardly calculated how old I’d be at the turn of the millennium. But 40-aught years (129,383,396 seconds) are a thick slab of time for a 9-year-old to contemplate, and New York is 2,173 miles from Salt Lake City. So when Osama bin Laden’s attack arrived, like a two-day late, 50th birthday present, I remember watching with binoculars as the South Tower collapsed, knowing there would be heavy causalities and that our clean and comfortable world would never be the same.
Despite having a ringside seat to this catastrophe, life had to go on. I’d spent the two previous years hustling to organize a show in—of all places—Berlin, which would open less than a week after the attacks. Though a critical success, it was a total commercial zero. The most controversial “piece” was a portfolio I’d placed on the receptionist’s desk filled with the Towers’ debris—burned papers, receipts and cards I’d collected from the roof of our loft, about three-quarters of a mile from Ground Zero. Viewers thought I’d concocted the papers, and then acted chastised when I tried to explain that they weren’t artistic simulations. Still, having lived in Germany for two and a half years while in the military, I was astonished by the support that Berliners showed the USA in the immediate wake of 9/11.
Looking back, all these art career glitches seem pathetically petty. No one I knew personally was killed in the attacks. I remember the surrealistic experience of shopping in Cobble Hill, stocking up on essentials, and vodka, while the pile formed by the just-fallen towers was still smoldering. We hosted a sleepover for half a dozen kids, our sons’ classmates, who lived in Manhattan and, due to the blockades, couldn’t return to their homes until the next day. All told, besides the obvious earth-shattering implications of the terrorist attacks, I was left with only minor inconveniences.
I mention all this in response to the wave of nostalgia sweeping the public in the wake of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Our “War on Terrorism” grinds on towards a decade’s engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan with questionable results. The casualty count, currently at over fifty-six hundred Americans dead, with tens of thousands severely injured, keeps mounting with haunting regularity. As a Vietnam era former Army medic, I was lucky to have never seen combat, but I feel a strong and abiding kinship with all our service members, especially those in the medical fields.
“The Joe Bonham Project” at Storefront stirred my conflicted responses and left me in a state of anxious melancholy. Organized by guest curator and New Criterion Managing Editor James Panero, the “Project” is a group effort of wartime illustrators formed in early 2011 by Michael D. Fay, an artist and retired Marine. Focusing on the healing and rehabilitation of wounded troops, the artists visit military hospitals and engage with their volunteer subjects in a very casual manner, observing them when they are doing physical therapy or are involved in conversations. The majority of these works are drawings, some visibly ripped out of sketchbooks; in most cases, there’s no sense of the models being posed, or of a conscious pursuit of idealization on the artist’s part. We’ve all seen and been disturbed by the brutal objectivity of photo-journalistic depictions of war wounded, but these pictures resonate with a humane subjectivity, eliciting a sympathetic connection through their rough, hands-on spontaneity. Many contain sidebar notes that reveal back-story narratives about their subjects—their injuries, activities, and families—adding a diaristic touch.
Dropping in for the opening, a week and a half before the 9/11 ten-year memorial, I noticed a different tone among attendees. Not only did the depictions of men with amputated legs and arms, their prosthetic devices exposed and tubes leading into and out of ravaged bodies, evoke a more solemn mood, but the presence of artist Lance Corporal Robert Bates, looking lean in his dress khaki uniform, insinuated the uncomfortable existence of reality into the art world’s intentionally created realm of fantasy. A portrait by Bates shows the rebuilt face of Lance Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter. Receiving the brunt of a grenade blast to the head during an engagement with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Carpenter now wears a glass eye embedded with his purple heart medal as a defiant gesture of resistence. Two pen-and-inks of Staff Sergeant David Lyon by embedded artist Roman Genn contrast the helmeted soldier, standing tall, armed and armored, with a later view of the sergeant, sitting on a bench, his dog nearby, both legs replaced by high-tech prosthetics below the knees. There are several works that present portraits of the same subject, one of the most memorable being Sergeant Jason Ross, USMC. The wiry, mustached Ross is one of the most critically damaged of the Marines depicted in the show. Having returned to the field to try and recover a weapon dropped by a wounded comrade, both legs were blown off just below the hip by an IED. Ross is pictured, bare torso, intubated, with only a sheet covering the lower half of his body, drainage catheters replacing his legs.
It’s a delicate and discomforting aesthetic area encountered with these works, and I accept the notion expressed by curator Panero, and Project founder Fay, that the show had no intentional “political” agenda. Yet within the hyper-partisan New York art scene, any hint of “patriotism,” “nationalism,” or sympathy for the U.S. military could, in the past, rain down a screaming chorus of derision. The fact that the “Joe Bonham Project” has escaped this kind of criticism may be due to the passing of a generation, or to a community evolving a more rational view, in the aftermath of New York suffering the worst attack on American soil, of the world and its dangers. I think it also bears testament to the success of this exhibition, and to our natural, empathic identification with those heroes who chose to follow the call that few have the courage to answer. The show’s therapeutic value extends not only to the injured Marines and the artists, but to viewers dealing with ten long years of war. A video tour and conversation about the exhibition with curator James Panero is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1KbKDTwExM.
If you’ve got nothing to say, say it loud. If it’s not very interesting, make it big. If it looks lousy, shine it up. This is the formula for a lot of what is dished out today as “important.” Big budgets, overhype, and extravagance fit the media’s template for catching the eye of those with severely impaired attention spans. A two-person show titled “Lars and Lori,” by artist couple Lori Ellison and Lawrence Swan at Valentine, veers in the opposite direction, riveting the observer’s attention and drawing them close by whispering. Ellison has been a significant member of the Williamsburg painting community for over a decade, her intimate panel paintings gaining the attention and support of local practitioners like James Siena and Richard Timperio as well as the critical comments of writers like Roberta Smith. Reviewing Ellison’s 2008 exhibition at Sideshow Gallery, Smith stated, “she may be some kind of genius,” words not lost in this context. Many of Ellison’s pictures, the size of a paperback book, are gouache on gessoed wood, the white grounds making her fractal-like repeated patterns of red and black operate more like line drawing than painting. This is appropriate, as this series is an effort to reproduce works from a water-damaged sketchbook. With six subtly colored pictures featuring obsessively repeated hash marks or tic-tac-toe grids that overlay backgrounds of lighter tints of the same color, Ellison orchestrates the grouping as a whole by installing the individual works to contrast their coloristic intervals.
While I’ve occasionally seen individual pieces in group shows, viewed his efforts online at New Clean Blog, and bumped into his Art Bum Mini Comic on my news feed at Facebook, this is my first encounter with a sizable group of works by Lars Swan. Humble means and deadpan wit are useful tools for Swan’s investigations of color and sculptural interventions of the picture plane. Employing that most derided of art products, commercially produced canvas boards, Swan cuts, strips, and bends sections of these boards into geometric, origami-like objects that recall Russian Constructivist wall sculpture. A series of word games in which poetic couplets are created by stacking painted letter-blocks to form words like “beg, ego, god,” and on the reverse, “new, era, war,” seem to reveal an unexpected profundity in the guise of a brightly colored baby’s toy. By reducing his palette to black, white, red, and yellow, there’s an implied relationship to the formalist concept of reduction, but in Swan’s case it seems more a whimsical or practical choice than a dogmatic one based on some Neoplastic color theory. The abject and reductive nature of these pieces echoes the early objects of Richard Tuttle or the tiny 1980s canvas board paintings of Thomas Nozkowski. To fully appreciate this couple’s works, slow down, stand close, close your mouth, and open your heart.