"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
-- Theodore Roosevelt, 1918
The above remark, uttered by former president Theodore Roosevelt during World War I, has a special resonance today. This is, after all, a time of not just war, but of a controversial war that some feel obliged to protest, if not for its very existence, then at least for its timing and circumstances. Even as some right-wing radio hosts denounce anyone who disagrees with the president as a traitor, others feel it is not only their right but also their duty to vocally disagree. Considering that the leaders of most religious denominations have formally expressed opposition to the war, it would appear that the traditional rallying cry of "God and country" may have become somewhat blurry despite all the bombast.
Like everyone else, artists come down on all sides of the war issue, yet political art walks a fine line: if it is too propagandistic then it runs a risk of being mindlessly inane, but if it is too vague it may fail to be provocative. And this war is complicated by the mixed feelings of the many who would love to be rid of Saddam but are appalled by the way President Bush has gone about it. In David Sullivan's Supply and Demand show of cyber graphics on large vinyl banners, money and power are apparently the chief culprits once again. In Exploding Gas Bubble a Gen. Pattonish cartoon figure appears with a light bulb like an aureole around his upper body as a mushroom cloud rises behind him. Floating like a mystical vision in the midst of all this is an old-time ticker-tape machine, while a robotic combat device silently watches and waits off to the side. If broadly reminiscent of R2D2, the robot's retro trappings suggest an earlier industrial epoch, perhaps to underscore the retrograde nature of the underlying issues. And, in fact, despite all the hype about how our superior technology would make this war "a cakewalk," grisly old realities now seem to prevail.
Blood Sport is a no less collage-like composition rendered in the same flamingo pink, blue, yellow and green color scheme, only here, many oil barrels are floating in space. Bisecting them is an M-16 assault rifle with its barrel bent back toward the shooter. A column of ants snakes between the oil barrels and a leering face, a depiction of a retro clown or perhaps Congressman Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, it's hard to say which. The retro robot also appears in other works, including a minimalist computer game called Your Doom, which does little beyond conjuring a mood of lurking paranoia, but that may be enough. Supply and Demand is whimsically and crisply critical yet not dogmatic, thought provoking without telling you what to think.
William Warren and Pati D'Amico's On the Verge show came about as their response to what they characterize as "the cultural dementia resulting from Sept. 11, 2001." Their paintings are rendered in their expressionistic and rather whimsical styles, which can at times seem pointedly childlike, as in D'Amico's The Recurrent Nightmare of Buildings, a nocturnal cityscape in which skyscrapers have freaky Cyclops eyes glowing in the light of a death's head moon as passenger planes and bodies swoop through the night. Her caricatures of administration honchos such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge are more caustic if no less whimsical. Warren's paintings are more classically European in style, with overtones of Max Beckman as we see in The Twister of Truth, in which a dreamlike figure in a garland of skulls serves as a metaphor for the notion that "truth is the first casualty of war." Although these paintings were responses to a different crisis, and although this show was scheduled some time ago, works such as Warren's Urban War Zone are not unlike recent news footage of fighting in Iraqi cities, and once again we are reminded that art sometimes seems to have a mind of its own, independent of any artist or gallery.
- William Warren's co-exhibition with Pati D'Amico, On the Verge, featuring works such as Urban War Zone, might have been scheduled a while ago, but still feels timely as we absorb the images of war in Iraq.