Artists try to convey impact of Sept. 11

Works illustrate changes in moral, emotional climates


July 26, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

When I walked into the Artscape exhibit at School 33 Art Center and took in the title of the show, A New Paradigm, I thought maybe it was about a new way of thinking about art after the Sept. 11 tragedy.

It wasn't.

Since the attack in New York, a lot of people have been saying it's not as easy as it sounds to translate the painful emotions of that day into art. Some compare 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but there's actually no great American artwork that came out of that event.

Of course, there are precedents: Goya's Third of May comes immediately to mind. The closest equivalent in our era may be Picasso's monumental painting Guernica, created as a memorial to the Spanish victims of fascist aggression in the years just before World War II. But the "new paradigm" in Guernica related not to a style of artmaking - Picasso had invented cubism decades earlier - but to a world in which the deliberate killing of civilians through aerial bombing had become an acceptable tactic in warfare.

The "new paradigm" of the School 33 show, it turns out, refers to the changed emotional and moral climate in the country since the attacks on New York and Washington. And clearly it's a mixed bag; some of the pieces work better than others.

The show opens with a series of eight works by painter Daniel Schiavone that, to my mind, illustrate the great difficulty facing artists attempting to turn wrenching historical events into images.

Schiavone's canvases have all the hallmarks of high-modern seriousness - expressionistic drawing, non-realistic colors and a portentous sense of gloom and doom. Yet the images themselves are almost anti-climactic. They depict the familiar box-like forms of the twin towers menaced by larger-than-life figures or propped up by makeshift supports. Sometimes the figure in the picture refers to the giant Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in the months before Sept. 11. At other times, they seem to refer to the al-Qaida attackers or their victims.

There's a visceral directness about these works that reminds me of the brutal drawings of William Kentridge, and there is certainly no doubt at all about the artist's sincerity in responding to a great national trauma. But somehow the paintings are almost too obvious and heavy-handed: I couldn't help thinking of those 1950s-era posters for monster movies such as Godzilla and Rodin, in which gigantic malevolent creatures topple tall buildings to rebuke man's hubris. There is a similar sense of theatricality and melodrama - and unreality - here, which ultimately hardly seems befitting a postmodern tragedy like 9/11.

In the next room, a similar difficulty afflicts Julie Stovall's digital video projection, Building Blocks, which shows children alone or in groups painstakingly erecting toy towers out of wooden blocks, then knocking the structures down with a wave of their arms.

It's easy to see this as a metaphor for the processes of creation and destruction, and that's part of the problem - it's almost too easy. Yes, there is an implied comparison between the children's innocence and the venomous evil of terrorists; and yes, it does make one wonder how the playful acts of children can become distorted into the murderous impulse that allows a fanatic to fly an airliner full of passengers into a crowded office building.

But the work doesn't ever manage to transcend these literal one-to-one correspondences; it remains on the level of allegory rather than symbolism, didactic rather than transformative. As a result, in the end, you feel it has promised more than it actually delivers.

Sculptor Anthony Cervino's rows of black-painted ravens and white birdhouses, also on the gallery's first floor, refer less obviously to 9/11 and, perhaps for that very reason, seem more resonant of the tragedy.

Cervino's birdhouses are oddly inaccessible, having been constructed with no visible entrances, possibly a metaphor for our inability to find shelter or comfort in the attack's aftermath, while the ominous birds suggest both supernatural messengers from the dead and the continuing threat of malignant powers.

I was also quite intrigued by Leslie King-Hammond's installation at the entrance to the second-floor gallery, which takes the form of a household shrine or memorial to the victims of the disaster and their families.

King-Hammond, who is of West Indian descent, recasts the private domestic altars found in many traditional island homes into a sacred space, invoking the spirits of those killed in the attacks. At the same time, the work acknowledges the public character of the tragedy by incorporating the outpouring of shock and anger expressed through the nation's media, represented by dozens of sheets of newsprint that cover the walls of her shrine. It's a work that reminds us that the wounds our country has suffered are as much spiritual as economic and political.

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