Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

History examination

Artspace Untitled (Space) Gallery
50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Don't Know Much About History
Through Jan. 20, 2007.

Internal monologue, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mar. 20, 2003, 10:15 p.m. EST:

"Vyetnam. Vyetnam." Why does that word keep poppin' up? Sounds familiar. Can't place it. Does it have something to do with nucular weapons? Been hearin' it a lot recently. Reminds me of somethin' but I can't remember what. Wait. I remember mah Daddy sayin' when he was President, "We have to shake the vyetnam sin drome," which is a drome filled with sin. Ya shake the drome and the sin falls out. Heh, heh. That's it. Glad I remembered. Hate it when I can't remember somethin' important. Wonder what a drome looks like. Maybe there's a picture on the Internets. Oh, gotta go. Turd Blossom is signalin' that I gotta go on the TV and tell people that we've started droppin' bombs on Saddam. Heh, heh. This is gonna be fun. I'm gonna show Daddy how a real man makes war.

You can ignore the past but it won't ignore you. It has a way of coming up and biting you on the ass when you least expect it. One day it's "Mission Accomplished!" and the next you are facing your own Dien Bien Phu in the dusty streets of Baghdad. Who knew?!

For the artists represented in Don't Know Much About History in Artspace's Untitled (Space) Gallery—the title taken from the first line of Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World"—history is a living presence not musty irrelevance. They invoke the past to illuminate the present.

The approach to history, or perhaps the use of history, varies for each of these artists. Joe Zane takes a conceptual approach to leverage multiple layers of historicity. Some background history to Zane's project: In 1990, thirteen paintings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In accordance with the strictures of Gardner's will, nothing is to be changed in the museum; empty frames remain where the paintings were once displayed. Using images of five of the stolen works—including two Rembrandts and a Vermeer—Zane had replicas made. The faux paintings were produced in China.

They weren't made photo-mechanically, at least not wholly. Displayed as part of the show, they still glisten with wet oil paint. There are visual brush marks. (Although I do wonder if they were produced like the "$49 sofa-size paintings" advertised on TV, as prints with added touches to simulate real paintings.) At any rate, Zane's idea juggles the concept of history on several levels: the history of the museum and the still unsolved theft; the references within the paintings to other times and places; the art historical and economic issue of the value of original works by acknowledged masters versus that of the reproductions; and, through the outsourcing of the reproductions to China, the issue of our declining economic circumstances vis-a-vis the world economy.

Colleen Coleman's entry is also primarily conceptual in nature. "Re-Writing AmeriKKKa's History II" is a mixed media installation that calls for viewer participation. Coleman has supplied chalk, a large chalkboard, an old wooden chair that might have been found in a school and a couple of stacks of books. The books, from Coleman's personal collection, deal with African-American history and historiography. There are titles by W.E.B. DuBois, slave narratives and Images in Black: 150 Years of Black Collectibles by Douglas Congdon-Martin. The latter book is a compendium of popular culture images of black people, most—if not all—overtly racist. Visitors are invited to sit in the chair and peruse the books and then jot comments about or quotes from them on the chalkboad, perhaps erasing previous comments in the process. History, Coleman is saying, is a process that involves not only what is remembered but also what is forgotten or repressed.

Charles Browning and Titus Kaphar both reference the realm of American historical painting with the intent to critique it. And both have ample technical painting skills to serve them well in their efforts. Browning incorporates stylistic conventions of the 18th and 19th centuries in his paintings. He then subverts the work so we see the images fresh. For example, "Black Face" is based on a portrait by Ingres. But the society matron so genteelly posed is depicted in minstrel black face, highlighting the fact that these were originally portraits for white society. By employing humor and irony, Browning can expose some of the underlying ideology of the original, and challenge viewers to consider such issues in contemporary works.

Kaphar is represented by one large work, "New Revolution." A 2005 graduate of Yale, Kaphar based the original painting of "New Revolution" on a detail in John Trumbull's "Battle of Bunker Hill." Kaphar, an African-American, highlighted the one black figure in the historic painting, bringing to the foreground the issue of race, the signal failure of the then-new nation. He then took the critique a step forward. In a "performance" at the Yale University art Gallery before Trumbull's original, Kaphar cut the figures out of his painting. His work became a new frame, in essence, through which to view Trumbull's heroic narrative as something less than it appeared. At Untitled (Space), Kaphar's redacted original is hung next to a blank canvas adorned with the figures cut out in the performance.

The ideology of Orientalism, an underpinning of European imperialism, is the target of Lalla A. Essaydi. In the foreground of her painting "Malpractice #2," a dark, bearded man offers a nude alabaster white woman in a bit of a swoon to a raven-haired beauty slung like a snake on the edge of a bed. The exotic, erotic East preying on virginal Western femininity, a common Orientalist trope. This foreground scene is painted in color; the trio is watched by a large audience of men in suits, painted in shades of black and white. The objectifying male gaze conspires with the cultural domination of imperialist ideology.

Justin Richel uses a period approach to demythologize George Washington, the erstwhile "father of our country." In a series of gouache on paper portraits, Richel depicts the first President expressing his "Love of Country" or "Making of a Nation" by thrusting his erect member into a covered bridge, a barn and a couple of houses. The accompanying gouache and egg tempera, "Father of a Nation" shows in Washington in military get-up with his trousers down around his ankles. They are accompanied by a title card stating that Washington in fact was sterile, so the whole "father of the country" bit should be taken figuratively. Stylistically, they look like they could have run in an anti-Federalist scandal sheet, if they had been produced in the era of underground comics.

Paul Revere fares considerably better in the offerings of Mary Dwyer. Like Richel, Dwyer uses period style to portray the Revolutionary icon. The five acrylic on wood paintings have a plainness and indifference to adornment handed down from the Puritans. They are rendered not with irony but with genuine interest and affection. Revere's legendary midnight ride is the subject of the middle panel, "On the Eighteenth of April, in Seventy Five." Speaking at the opening, Dwyer said that she found while researching Revere that his ride was furtive and surreptitious, not a rousing call to arms. In the painting, Revere is astride his horse in total darkness. The horse is cantering, not in full gallop, and both Revere and a raccoon in the lower left corner look off to the left as though they have been startled by a suspicious noise.

Two wholly different approaches to historic landscapes are pursued by artists Jonathan Santos and Deborah Bright. In Santos' "Dealy Plaza, Dallas, TX, 1963" [sic—the actual spelling is "Dealey"], a series of 10 acrylic paintings, the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination is grist not for conspiracy-mongering but for high concept Pop Art. As though trying to analyze a moment of national trauma through the prism of Mapquest, Santos zooms in and out on the location of the shooting. It is a constructed landscape rendered in flat color abstraction, shades of red, white and blue.

Ostensibly, Deborah Bright's "Manifest Project" photographs depict New England stone walls being overrun by forest. But each image is paired with a notation such as "Conveyed to Reuben Putney by deed of Othiel Pratt, 1826." Just as the commons were enclosed in England, the colonists took land they didn't own, cleared it, bounded it with stones and sold it. The images are beautiful, lush, but the context reveals them as symbols of conquest and dispossession.

A different kind of appropriation is evidenced in the photographs of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. The indigenous American culture, whose absence is the presence in Bright's stone wall images, is here stereotypically appropriated by Germans who like to dress up as "Indians." To put the historical appropriation at a further step removed, they are drawn to the town of Radebeul, near Dresden, to celebrate the works of a 19th century German writer of "Cowboy and Indian" stories. The poses in Becher and Robbins' large color prints echo historic sepia-toned images of Native Americans from the 1890's. But the Aryan features and such anachronisms as the crossed American flags stitched into the pant legs of the "Chief" gives new meaning to Marx's dictum "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."

Just as the present connects to the past through numerous narrative arcs of serendipity and causality, so too are there various intersections between the concerns and the strategies of the featured artists. The deconstruction of historic painting by Titus Kaphar and Charles Browning. The interest in historic landscapes by Deborah Bright, Phil Whitman and Jonathan Santos. Kaphar's and Colleen Coleman's commentary on the marginalization of black people in American history. This is a wide-ranging, well-curated show marked by a refreshing combination of intellectual rigor and artistic technique.

Internal monologue, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Nov. 8, 2006, 10:15 p.m. EST:

Bogged down in a quagmire. Poll numbers in the dumps. Troops stuck in the middle of a civil war. Keep hearin' that word "vyetnam." Wish I could remember...


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