A Shovel Instead of a Fist

Although Union Square is bustling with Saturday shoppers despite the torrential rain, inside the Meridian Gallery it is quiet and empty. There’s nothing especially unusual about an empty gallery, except that I’m looking at a painting by Guy Colwell that four years ago was the center of a storm of protests, threats, and an attack on a gallery owner that eventually led her to close her business. Despite support from First Amendment advocates, Lori Haigh finally called it quits under the weight of unrelenting barrage of voicemail and e-mail threats, which included statements like “this is for lori haigh.. I am a purple heart owner and a patriotic american and I’m so sorry that you got punched in the face… I would have used a flat nosed shovel or a crowbar myself… so you got off pretty easy with just getting a slight little punch in the face.. us veterans would have probably slapped you in the face with a nice size shovel. So God bless America, support your troops in Iraq, or whatever… George Bush, we dont love him, but he is our commander and Chief and you can not give aid and comfort to the enemy, that is treason. So thank you for listening to me, and I hope the next guy uses a shovel instead of a fist.”

The painting was an interpretation of images already burned into our collective consciousness. So why did the acts of torture not provoke outrage, whereas a representation of them did? The answer is that Americans had turned their back on reportage altogether and under the guise of seeking more “balanced” media coverage had flocked to Fox News and other outlets willing to excuse whatever made the viewer too uncomfortable. Roadtrippin’ with the embedded journalists hadn’t helped too much either. I remember seething over duPont’s award to Ted Koppel, thinking it would have been more fitting had Columbia University refused to honor broadcast journalism that year. The dilemma is captured succinctly by one of the Art of Democracy posters on display a floor above Colwell’s painting. Claude Moller uses a classic image in his print If Vietnam Were Now 2005 that shows just how far we’d fallen from the work of reporters in the field during that war. Ted Koppel’s ride-along seems a pantomime compared to Dan Rather’s sojourn in the Sixties. The awful truth though was that in 2004, self censorship and suppression held the day. The problem wasn’t only that reporters were not delivering the full picture, but that their audiences were demanding it be cropped.

The Meridian’s exhibit then is appropriately titled The Art of Democracy: War and Empire. In a society that responds to images of sadism by attempting to redefine the word “torture,” apparently a photograph is not enough. Several of the works on display tackle a culture that will not be shocked by pairing the appalling with the beautiful. Fernando Marti’s Poppie/Amapolas, which can be viewed here, pairs orange jumpsuited detainees bound by plastic wrist cords kneeling within the confines of a razor-wired encampment and a field of orange poppies in a mountain valley. Ala Ebtekar’s falling bombs, reflecting back the Arabic script of the background, fall through swirls of stylized clouds redolent of Sufi miniature paintings.

A number of the works evoke Pinocchio in response to the lies that helped fuel the war and continue to distort the view of events. Enrique Chagoya’s Poor George- After P.G. (24.28) 2004 is a nod to Philip Guston’s Nixon series, giving George W. and Cheney the inglorious nose job. In The Long Road to War, all of the action plays out on the long schnoz of a grinning figure, with carnival pomp, balloons, harps and drums accompanying the marching bayonetted soldiers and prostitutes as they promenade toward oblivion. Death himself, closeted along the left hand border, seems startled by the procession. As per usual though, it is William T. Wiley’s The Furor Over the Truth 2005 that makes the most impression on me. The masking tape wrapped sculpture, constructed of paper towel spools and cardboard boxes is graffitied over with punning word play and allusions. “So this furor.., over the truth(s)? The Knows… is growing with each fib (or was it fbi… the dialogue had become initials w.m.d, d.p.u. ecc etc.” Appropriately, the complex writing runs in circles with occasional side trips all of which highlight that the truth isn’t so hard as we may make it. Indeed, we may be making it harder than it is because it’s difficult to face. “Dick’s scabbard – So Adolph P. Nixon becomes… George W. Pinocchio who may not look bushed right now… but he will…” And he does.

Which leads us to Francesca Pastine’s work From the Iraqi Casualty Series 2006. Three pages of text from the New York Times have been obliterated with graphite. What remains are the images: family trees with sections blacked from view, colored blankets draped over coffins, another set of coffins covered in plastic, a pile of Saks jewelry encrusted with diamonds. Normally it is the context that is elusive in news reporting. This war is one that will in retrospect be associated with a battle of images: the possible staging of the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, the banning of photographs of soldier’s coffins, the attack of a gallery owner over an image inspired by the Abu Ghraib scandal.

While world leaders can be held to task for their actions, the entire exhibit on display is a sharp look at the response of democracy to war and its response to itself. It is very easy to relinquish responsibility, but it is shameful when to excuse one’s complicity, the individual lashes back at democracy in an attempt to bring it to quiet submission. The Art of Democracy comes to an end on Tuesday when there is the possibility that a new direction for the nation will come into being and an end will be in sight for eight years of tragedy, the effects of which will linger for decades to come. But a confrontation with those eight years is crucial if there are to truly be any endings or beginnings, and I have a feeling that they now seem as far away to people as the place we still occupy that no longer gets top billing on the newscasts. Because therein lie the answers to why someone would paint a picture inspired by the events of Abu Ghraib, and why news blogs exploded across the web during this period. Bloggers aren’t journalists? Perhaps. But unfortunately journalists weren’t journalists either, so what was Joe the Blogger to do? Perhaps the problem is best captured by Frances Jetter’s offering, a silkscreen of a figure whose tongue is pierced by an enormous lock. Fittingly, the key is palmed in his own hand.

Thanks to my friend Erin who helped track down a particularly elusive link for me.

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