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Friday, January 25, 2008

The art of a distant war

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Bradley Dean Wollman: The Little War
Jan. 17—Feb. 17, 2008

Here's a tip for any artists whose work is written about on Connecticut Art Scene: If you think we (I) have missed the point, feel free to contact us and let us know. I bring this up in the context of writing about Bradley Dean Wollman's The Little War show of photography in Real Art Ways' Real Room.

Wollman's The Little War consists of his photographs of reconstructions of images from the Iraq War. Using toy soldiers, diorama material and ingenuity, Wollman offers a mediated look at the mediated look at the war. There is a technical and aesthetic proficiency to Wollman's images. It resides not just in the photography but also in his construction of his tableaux.

In a previous post, commenting on two of Wollman's images from this series displayed as part of Artspace's Juror's Choice from City-Wide Open Studios 2006 show, I wrote:

On the formal level, the photos are impressive. But they left me dissatisfied on the conceptual level. As in a child's play at war, there is no blood and anguish. And the criminal havoc inflicted on another people's land seems here just fodder for an aesthetic exercise.

I was further put off by the Wollman quote in Real Art Ways' press release for the Real Room show: "I cannot tell you how many atomic bombs I have dropped or cities I have destroyed; I am truly a veteran in a fantastical sense." Well, no.

But a broader set of images are shown at the Real Art Ways show. Seeing the first two images in the wider context went a ways toward addressing my concerns over Wollman's appropriation of the war imagery, as did my speaking with him at the Jan. 17 opening. There is a seriousness of purpose at work here.

Next to each other are "Man Down" and "Abu Ghraib." In the former, a medic attends to a wounded soldier contorting in agony on the grounds, the whole image shrouded in a dust storm haze. "Abu Ghraib" is a dioramic recapitulation of the iconic image of the anonymous hooded prisoner standing on a little cardboard box, arms spread and hooked up to wires. Several other images also address the human cost of the war and the callousness of mechanized murder.

But for Wollman, the show isn't about the war and carnage so much as it is about how we experience it in a media overload environment.

"The images we see in television are what I used as my reference material," Wollman told me. "The whole body of work is a comment on how we're detached from the war. It's more of a social commentary than a commentary on the war itself."

"By the time [the war] arrives in your living room or on the computer, it has been filtered through so many times," said Wollman. This filtering is not just that of corporate media decisions, "but by the medium itself. Photos can only catch so much." Any image is not only a moment in time but also a strictly delimited document of that moment. Things are missed outside the frame.

For Wollman, reconstructing the images was a way of making the war more concrete for himself, a way of understanding it. But he also noted that "Photography is a step removed. And by reconstructing these realities, it's another step removed."

At the opening, I also spoke with Greg Garvey, a professor in interactive digital design at Quinnipiac University and an artist who has been profiled on Connecticut Art Scene for his installations in the 2006 and 2007 City-Wide Open Studios. Garvey thought Wollman's photos are "a very sly commentary, the kind of work that could only be done now."

By way of contrast, Garvey mentioned Robert Capa's famed photograph from the Spanish Civil War of a loyalist soldier falling after having just been shot.

"We accept that as reality. For many people, it's an emblem of the unjust nature of that war and why you might be antiwar," said Garvey. "With these images, especially the one with the bird's eye view of the tanks ("Crossing the Desert"), it reflects awareness of others' works."

Garvey added that the controversial body artist Chris Burden had exhibited sculptures incorporating toy soldiers.

"There is a vocabulary in contemporary art of including these idioms," Garvey said. "He's taking part of that sensibility and merged it with recent events that draws attention to the possibility that it's real. And at the same time, we're invited to join in a little nudge that it's fake. It depends on our awareness of images in recent memory that are very similar to what we're looking at."

Wollman and Real Art Ways' Director of Visual Arts Kristina Newman-Scott will discuss the work in The Little War on Thurs., Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Hartford Johnson said...

I found Wollman's photography a perverse and cynical presentation of ideas entirely irrelevant to aesthetic expression. Doesn't he have anything better to with his model-building skill and photographic talent than to exclaim to the world his own superior political virtue?

2:27 PM

 
Blogger Sam McKinniss said...

Wollman is made complicit with those who make war. The violence he recreates is the violence which another American has created, which we consume, support and do not make an end to. Through mimesis, his art is sympathetic to the war machine, a stance which makes the pictures terribly disturbing but also seductive. I don't think it's a superior stance. And I think the work is too meticulous to be cynical.

9:58 AM

 
Blogger Hank Hoffman said...

Sam, when you write that "his art is sympathetic to the war machine," do you consider it an aesthetic statement of support for the war?

4:24 PM

 
Blogger Sam McKinniss said...

Certainly not. What I meant by sympathetic, is that he takes the risky position of aligning himself with those who are making war in a way to better understand and deconstruct the war-making process. He resists a naive and quick condemnation. The aesthetic tactics he uses are postmodern tactics, as previously stated. This postmodern stance (the distancing of the real through layers of mediation) necessarily removes Wollman from something like cynicism, virtue, or support of anything. Better yet, he is questioning "official" war documentary photography, so that we might all look a little bit closer. I am eager to hear what he has to say at his artist's talk Thursday night.

12:34 AM

 
Blogger Sam McKinniss said...

After all, he is an American citizen like the rest of us, like the President. It is a really frightening thought to put yourself in the position of a soldier and ask "could I be so violent?" and have the answer be yes. Maybe I meant empathy. This does not equate support for war. It's difficult art.

12:49 AM

 
Anonymous Brian Friedberg said...

Wollman uses toys, not just models. Models imply a detachment from the object, a static representation. Toys, while they may be models, are loved objects, imbided with fetishistic power reinforced by the relationship between the child- owner and the person who gave the child that toy, presumably someone with power over that child.

Wollman did not generate new models of soldiers clad in fantastic armour or using technology we don't have available today - rather, this images are a reference to what is actually being used on the battlefield. The credability of these images is granted by our socio-political "parent," the hegemonic force that allows us to even see Wollman's work as commentary at all. Wollman is also not the only person to have used these toys - how many children could be playing with the very soldiers Bradley used in his images? How many other young americans can make the same claims of imaginary anhilation and proliferation of conflict that he takes on at the start of his statement? I certainly can.

Wollman's parent, the one who gave him the toys, is the same authority figure we live subordinatly to. Sam references American citizenship in the last post, and that is an apt name for the parent here. Wollman's work could not exist without an aesthetic marker, namely images and video of US soldiers in Wartime.

Wollman isn't the only person using theses images - movies, comic books, and particularly video games employ the same "ripped from CNN" aesthetic to draw viewers into a "reality." Some are pro-war, some anti, some apathetic. What all these materials share, however, is the inability to escape the romanticization of killing technology, the love affair with the fatally-phallic.

What truly seperates Wollman's work from these profit-driven exercises is the vulnerablity with which he approaches war-commentary: he shows us his playthings (literal or figurative), and admits his guilt instantly in his statement. Because when it comes down to it, just being an American citizen is a support of war, and Wollman's haunting images ultimately reinforce that idea.

6:06 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to say that I really appreciate the dialog here. It is really important to me to read what people think about my work. Thank you for taking the time to support this forum.

-Bradley

11:44 PM

 
Anonymous Hartford Johnson said...

Sam - you wrote "And I think the work is too meticulous to be cynical." I don't understand -- what is the connection between attention to detail and cynicism?

12:50 PM

 
Anonymous Sam said...

Well since you asked, meticulous attention to detail suggests a heightened level of concern on the part of Wollman, who obviously cares very much about these constructions. I think he cares too much to be cynical. Empathy for the American press, for the Iraqi people, and for the American soldier. On a shrunken scale, he can understand better the ways in which war is waged, aestheticized, and felt by those involved first hand.

4:53 PM

 

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