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Life in War Time



Time marches on. Except, of course, when we are passing the time. For instance, baseball has been called America's favorite pastime, yet often we pass the time by shooting the breeze. Even then, time marches covertly on -- stealing first base on us, as it were. Funny how tricky time really is when you think about it. More than merely sneaky, it can be downright militant, or even martial, as it "marches on" while we "shoot the breeze" or what have you.

Einstein opined that time is not just timely, it is also spatial, and that time and space are ultimately the same thing, which is actually what the Buddhist and Hindu sages had been saying all along. Even so, more immediate issues of life and death in war and peace loom large in the wake of recent events, and in this vein the Ogden Museum's Then and Now show, a Southern artist's-eye-view of life in war time, is an often whimsical rumination on time, space and place.

Often, but not always. Some images, like the photo of local sculptor Christopher Saucedo at the site of the World Trade Center wreckage -- where his brother, a New York City fireman, lost his life -- are stark reminders of the personal side of an epochal tragedy. But even Ground Zero sometimes inspires philosophical ruminations, as we see in urban planner Robert Tannen's mixed-media installation comprising a couple of site drawings, a black flag and a memo to an architect friend, Frank Gehry. In the memo, Tannen takes issue with the "insensitivity and egomania" of those who immediately after the attack proposed specific plans for rebuilding. Indeed, while some have proposed that the World Trade Center be rebuilt as it was, others question whether such a replication might pose too much of a target for the crazies to try all over again. How should we evaluate such concerns? And would replicating the archetypally '80s towers be appropriate to those who lost their lives there? At a time when some feel it is unpatriotic to question anything about America as it was before the attack, questions still linger, regardless.

Now that it's just about over, the Afghan war increasingly resembles a virtual event. The unthinkable happened, and then we went to war and now it's already fading with the old year. In some previous wars, Americans inhabited "war time" like an alternate reality, alternating air-raid drills and rationing with a defiant attempt at normalcy. In this show, Elemore Morgan Sr.'s photographs offer a glimpse of Louisiana from World War II through the Korean conflict, as we see in Fais Do Do, a Cajun dance hall scene with swarthy bayou dudes and their hot 1940s foxes doing a swinging two-step, a vintage view of undiluted Acadiana. No less classic is his Blessing the Sugar Cane, a photo of a priest riding majestically in a mid-1940s convertible, blessing the undulating expanses of cane fields.

A more ethereal view by his son, Elemore Morgan Jr., hangs nearby. A ghostly pastel portrait of a Korean war pilot killed in action, Conversations With Joe Q., KIA May 1953, it is rendered in Morgan Jr.'s erstwhile style of Plein Air impressionism -- only here the spectral result is more like "thin air" impressionism. Morgan, like his father before him, is also an accomplished photographer, and his adjacent color photos of the minimal geometry of rural farm and church structures evoke something quintessentially American. But probably nothing suggests the rural South in World War II more than Richard Wilt's Farewell, an oil painting of a sharecropper family waving off a squadron of bombers flying low over the outhouse as kids play and women do laundry while pigs and chickens scrounge for morsels in the dirt.

It's a far cry from Herman Leonard's view of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, ancient art treasures blown to smithereens earlier this year by a Taliban fundamentalist regime that turned out to be too stupid to survive. In all, Then and Now is like a topical sampler of art works related to recent events as well as to earlier wars. Sometimes it's a stretch, and it is not always all that cohesive. But as a collection of graphically rendered memories and charged impressions, it constitutes a rapid deployment of art in response to an unexpected resurgence of war time; hence it is an attempt to ponder what is ordinarily imponderable.

Richard Wilt's oil painting Farewell is a quintessential look at the rural South in World War II, as the notion of normalcy treads in the shadow of war.
  • Richard Wilt's oil painting Farewell is a quintessential look at the rural South in World War II, as the notion of normalcy treads in the shadow of war.

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