(New) Disasters of War
A specialty of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture is presenting multi-disciplinary projects that combine art shows, films, lectures and panel discussions. The Mizel's current creative and intellectual enterprise focuses on war -- quite timely in the context of what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The art exhibition, (New) Disasters of War, is displayed in the Singer Gallery and was organized by director Simon Zalkind. The title refers to a series of etchings done in the early nineteenth century by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya called "Los Desastres de la Guerra," or "The Disasters of War." These etchings are the Old Master version of photojournalism, with Goya depicting the tragedies associated with Napoleon's savage occupation of Spain in 1808.
Goya's etchings were both an obvious and an interesting choice for Zalkind. Obvious because of the connection between the war Goya witnessed and the armed struggles of our own time; interesting because Goya's style set the stage for the rise of modernism a half-century later. Goya's loose and smeary technique leads directly to impressionism and, in that way, abstraction.
Zalkind began organizing the show by putting together a list of artists, most of whom work in the area, and contacting them with his idea. A few refused, but most accepted his offer to use Goya's "Disasters" as a reference for their own work. The artists selected create pieces that mostly fall into one of the following types: realist, figural abstractions or cartoon-based paintings and drawings, and postmodern photos.
More than any other style, contemporary realism predominates in (New) Disasters, with the show including pieces by some of the most important artists in the area working in this manner. At the top of nearly everyone's list in this regard is John Hull, whose acrylic-on-canvas "Rebels in the Sierra de Tardienta" seems to perfectly reflect his oeuvre and at the same time fully satisfy Zalkind's desire that the pieces refer to Goya's series. Hull, whose work has been described as a cross between Corot and Quentin Tarantino, paints scenes that have the narrative content of a crime novel. In this painting, set in Latin America, a group of men, some of them masked, are holding two rebels as prisoners, making them squat on the ground. You don't need much of an imagination to see that the rebels are about to be executed. As you'd expect, the painting is dark in mood and chillingly brutal.
Hull will be leaving the area soon to head up the art department of the College of Charleston in South Carolina. When that happens, Denver's painting scene will be notably diminished.
Also noteworthy as an accomplished realist is Jerry Kunkel, who is represented by the multi-part painting "Verso." Kunkel depicts different vignettes on separate panels, and the imagery -- a man with his arms tied, a doctor's bag, and even a Goya etching -- has a fairly obtuse meaning. Collectively, however, the images suggest a sense of danger.
Pushing that foreboding feeling further is the painting by Margaretta Gilboy, another representational artist. Her "Cry Havoc! Let Slip the Dogs of War" is a triptych with the outline of a baby in the center flanked by portraits of vicious dogs. The dogs, which are barely held back by their unseen masters, seem to be on the verge of leaping out of the edges of the picture.
Among those doing figural abstraction is Bill Stockman, whose ten untitled drawings noticeably refer to Goya's suite. There are military scenes in the Stockmans, and the depictions of death have an enigmatic quality. He conveys the imagery through complicated drafting, using smears of charcoal to blur some of the details. They are signature Stockmans, and it's good to see him working up to speed again after a several-year hiatus.
Other figural abstractionists include Margaret Neumann and Steven Altman, both of whom incorporate the human form as the basis for otherwise abstract works. In Neumann's painting, a dark outline of a figure looms over a pile of shoes, the subject inspired by an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Museum. A standing figure of an old man takes the center of Altman's "Knowledge Is Bad, Birth Is Dirty and Death Is Holy," with other images -- including a baby being speared by a bayonet -- surrounding him. Appearance aside, it is based on an actual Goya.
It may seem unexpected that some artists in the show would respond with pieces related to cartoons, but it could in fact be argued that Goya's originals have a cartoon-like quality, as they are simplified renderings that appear to be sequential. No artist in (New) Disasters makes this point as clearly as Enrique Chagoya, whose cartoon-like prints are based on specific Goya originals. Chagoya is the only internationally famous artist here, and his prints were not done specifically for this show. However, Zalkind felt that their relevance to his effort made them a natural addition. He was right.
A little further afield is another cartoon-like set of works on paper, watercolors by Eric Zimmer. These fanciful pieces are vaguely Middle Eastern in subject, with insurgents, soldiers, tanks and airplanes mixing freely with whimsical elements such as dinosaurs. Zimmer's style looks mid-century-modern in the way he applies color in broad, expressive strokes and in the way he references Mad Magazine-style characters.
Finally, there are those who work in photography, and some of the most striking pieces in the show come from this group -- as do those that most closely fulfill Zalkind's vision. An example is the battle scene "French, Mohawk, British and Colonists," which is done in a large inkjet print by newcomer-to-town Edie Winograde. This photo is part of a large body of work in which Winograde photographs historic reenactments of battles, something that's earned her some national attention. Because what she photographs is fake, her topic is rife with postmodernist content that raises questions about the nature of reality versus simulation. Winograde has lived in New York for many years and still maintains her apartment there, but she's spending more time in Colorado, with the idea of relocating here. Clearly, she'd make a sophisticated addition to the scene.
Another photographer in the show who has plenty to say is Jimmy Sellars. The pieces in (New) Disasters reflect his longstanding interest in photographing G.I. Joe figures. Though he typically poses the dolls in homoerotic positions, they're seen here on an imaginary battlefield that Sellars has constructed. The two digital prints, both based on the same image, show one G.I. Joe being taken prisoner by the other. Hung side by side, they're very elegant.
There's an excellent catalogue accompanying this show with an example of each artist's work paired with individual statements written by them, giving viewers insight into how the pieces relate to Goya's originals. For further explication, the Mizel is presenting a discussion with artists Jerry Kunkel, Gabriel Liston, Gary Emrich and Edie Winograde this Sunday, February 25, at 3 p.m. in the Pluss Theatre. The talk will be moderated by Lisa Tamaris Becker, director of the University of Colorado's Sibell Wolle Gallery in Boulder.
Zalkind is one of the most respected curators in the area, and I think a reason for this is that he's so good at scouting up local talent for his exhibits. He's decided to tap artists in the community because he sees opportunities for them disappearing. With Denver gaining a higher national profile, some social-climbing curators are hot to feature the work of international artists while pretending there aren't any worthy players right under their noses. Another reason for Zalkind's ongoing success is that his shows are always grounded in history and politics, as evidenced by his encouraging artists to use Goya as a vehicle for their own anti-war messages.
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