BENJAMIN COTTAMby Jonathan Goodman
The Institute of Fine Arts (New York University)
March 21 – April 30, 2015
For more than a year now, curator Lisa Banner, who graduated with a doctorate on 17th-century patronage and collecting in Spain from the Institute of Fine Arts, has been curating contemporary art exhibitions in two small vitrines found on the steps of the Institute’s Great Hall. With curiosity and skill, Banner has found all sorts of youngish artists to display and discuss. Recently, she moderated a panel, “Conceptual Space: Artist Installations in the Display Cases,” at the school on four such artists—TR Ericsson, Dean Dempsey, Jongil Ma, and Christopher Smith—who specialize in photography and film. Despite the extremely limited space, Banner has found a way of introducing students, academics, and the general public to art that challenges and demands attention.
A recent show of Benjamin Cottam’s work was particularly stimulating. Working within very small dimensions, Cottam concentrates on images of war, drawing casualties with white crayon on blue paper. The artist picks up information from journalistic accounts and turns them into small tours de force of drawing and moral concern. His drawings are hard to read because of the nature of the white crayon, which results in images that are truly indeterminate and atmospheric. But that does not constrain their force, which depends upon a view of art that embraces ethical imperatives as well as formal concerns.
Because of the atmospheric nature of their presence as art, Cottam’s drawings do not easily yield to identification with specific events, although in conversation, the artist told me that two drawings from his Staged Kill series owe their existence to a highly particular occurrence: the deliberate murder of an unarmed, 15-year-old Afghani by an American squad in La’l Mohammad Kalay, in Kandahar, Afghanistan on January 15, 2010. According to the report in Rolling Stone: “Ordering the boy to stand still, they [the American soldiers] crouched behind a mud wall, tossed a grenade at him, and opened fire from close range.” In “Staged Kill #3”(2014), it is difficult but possible to recognize the soldier holding the boy’s head up with one hand and giving the thumb up gesture with the other. Cottam’s vision here is a reckoning of the imperial violence America continues to perpetrate on innocents far from home, so that distance blunts the intensity of the experience.
At the same time, it is impossible to view these drawings without calling to mind the stoneware developed by Josiah Wedgwood in England during the 1770s. Given the actual content of Cottam’s drawings, it is an absurd reference, but there it is. Part of the achievement of these works comes from their art historical awareness, along with their highly determined contemporary consciousness, which doesn’t necessarily recognize the past except through the artist’s designated palette. One allusion offsets the other, giving Cottam’s audience a literal mixed message, as so often happens in postmodern art. Yet the political content of the work shows through the layers of suggestion quite powerfully.
Much political art made in America today suffers from literalism—a move away from metaphorical inference, usually the basis of imaginative art or literature. Cottam puts himself in the unusual position of telling us a lot and a little at once. If we know the actual origination of “Staged Kill #3,” our sense of outrage is at once ignited. But if we do not, the work tends toward a generality that, like the paintings of mercenaries by Leon Golub, rather diffusely make their point. One of the great strengths of Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) is how he treats the particularity of the event—the bombing of the town in northern Spain by Germans, in support of Franco. Cottam’s implications are not so easily defined.
Actual formal description in most of Cottam’s compositions tends to lose sharpness of focus, partly because of the medium, and partly because of the atmospheric bent of the overall shape of the body. In “Drone Strike”(2014), a dead man sprawls across the lower right half of the blue paper. His legs are splayed out, and his left arm rests on the ground, attached to but at a distance from his body. The folds of the soldier’s uniform are recognizable, but the overall experience of the form is somewhat remote. One is inevitably sympathetic to the image, having been informed by the title as to the cause of the man’s death. Simultaneously, however, there is an impersonality that in some ways detracts from our experience of the image.
The double message of “Drone Strike” indicates the limits of a visual politics that relies on implication rather than close definition of its circumstances. There is nothing wrong in doing this; Cottam is brave to address actual issues. But the problem of drawing a generic moral from a real event doesn’t go away, no matter how impassioned the artist’s intentions. Perhaps this is the result of being given too much information; sadly, because of television and computers, we are all now well versed in violent world incidents and war. Cottam’s strength is to portray such violence in the broadest of terms, but his doing so also reminds us that violence is inherently specific, and not abstract.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.