WMD Front Room Gallery July 2004by William Powhida
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and their psychological toll are rendered in a variety of media in WMD at Front Room gallery. Curator Susannah Ray has assembled a group of artists whose work employs both irony and sincerity to examine the effects of war at home and abroad, from the paranoia of governmental conspiracy to the horrible suffering of civilians in the war torn countries.
The works in the exhibition range from the direct lyricism of Eyal Danieli’s abstract figuration to theoretical questions about the construction of masculine identity in Gerry Beegan’s inkjet appropriation of a LIFE magazine illustration of white male soldiers frolicking in an exotic paradise. The artists’ methods and aesthetic concerns couldn’t be more disparate in their commitment to modern and post-modern practices, but like the rest of the works in the show, they use their respective languages to articulate the tragic ironies and absurdities of Western "nation building," a modern euphemism for imperialism.
Danieli’s works may be the most direct expressions of this common investigation, but his three series of almost monochromatic, mixed-media paintings are laced with irony and humor to ridicule stereotypes and the images of war. In "surprise, surprise," a cartoon-like figure is seen reacting to the sudden presence of an incoming bomber through a filmic series of panels. Danieli’s title, and the comical expression of the ill-fated hero, capture the evident cultural and technological dissonance between Western and Islamic societies. The entire body of work, including the quickly rendered, watery sketches of veiled Islamic women in "You Have Been Pre-selected" (2001-04) and the massive flying fortress bombers in "Some of My Best Friends" (2000-04), drips with a kind of caustic sarcasm that seems born of frustration and empathy.
There isn’t a franker image of the suffering the war has caused than Sean Hemmerle’s portrait of Sadek Zoman Ibrihim laid out in hospital bed in Kaditha, Iraq. It isn’t clear if Sadek is alive or dead: his eyes are focused on the ceiling; tubes run out of his stomach; his toes are curled at the end of the bed. It’s an image of the indignity and pain endured by Iraqi citizens that is seldom seen publicly. The image is listed as NFS, indicating that Ibrihim has perhaps died, and that Hemmerle is unwilling to profit in death, unlike Cheney and Halliburton.
Masood Kamandy’s photographic works have the same documentary quality as Hemmerle’s, but Kamandy suggests horror by focusing on the site of war. His photographs "A Children’s Vocational School" (2002) and "Ariana Graveyard" (2002) display a chilling use of scale to show loss and tragedy. The former is an image of a lone child searching drawers in a long, rubble-covered hallway. In the latter, a massive pile of shoes fills an empty room as sunlight streams in, slicing the composition diagonally. The sheer number of shoes that belonged to the dead is presented as both evidence and testament.
Emily Roz highlights the political tension and paranoia the Bush administration has caused with the Patriot Act. Reversing the focus of the act’s intrusion on privacy, Roz surveiles the Capitol and the White House using televised images. The snapshots of the buildings make them seem like potential targets that need to be watched, not out of concern for their safety, but out of concern for our right to privacy and freedom of expression. It’s an effective and ironic reversal of the paranoia now surrounding photography. Roz takes on the role of the would be "terrorist," identifying potential targets, and captures something of the anger the left feels about the "War on Terror."
The most ironic and postmodern works in the show belong to Karolyn Hatton, Gerry Beegan, and David Rees. Their works not only critique the war, but intervene in modes of its representation. Beegan pushes his critique of military culture further with his box of foreign policy novels. The object is all surface, and its lack of depth, along with the graphic print of books with the names of military operations like "Eagle Pull" and "Uphold Democracy," operates as a metaphor for the noble face put on something as awful as war. Karolyn Hatton has two very different works that use humorous and affectingly ironic reversals. In "Untitled" (2003), Hatton turns imagery of apache helicopters into a seventies-style inspirational poster with the words "The cool breeze on our faces." She also has a vase with flowers made out of a camouflaged jacket, which feels something like the iconic image of the hippie placing a flower in the muzzle of guardsmen’s rifle. David Rees includes two prints of a political comic that directly expresses the artist’s frustration with the Iraq conflict. Rees’s humorous comics are printed with red ink, a not so subtle reference to the blood spilled in the name of a war based on lies and deception.
As an exhibition, WMD displays an excellent range of artistic styles that are unified through their common effort to critique and illuminate a manufactured conflict. The individual works are quite powerful, and despite its own intentions, the show transcends topicality, especially with Hammerle’s deeply moving photograph. Ray’s selections seamlessly cover several facets of the war, from domestic stress to political paranoia, without reducing art to the level of politics.