Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Curious Allure of War

The Curious Allure of War

By Tom Wachunas

Even a sidelong glance at human history will reveal that among the most appalling qualities of earth people is our apparently indefatigable capacity to hurt each other. But that same glance will also bring to light our outrage at such atrocious shortcomings, coupled with our ceaseless pursuit of justice, healing, and hope. Clearly, we are a maddeningly dichotomous, unreasonable species. Capable of spawning soaring, inspiring geniuses the likes of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Handel, or Beethoven, we also birth misanthropic scourges like Hitler and bin Laden. There is to this day abundant evidence that we continue to make our world a place where beauty and beast are entwined, wrestling and inseparable…where with one hand we hungrily grasp at sweet, ephemeral delights, and with the bloodied other, wield unspeakable cruelties.

And yet we do speak of them – with jarring clarity as well as subtle eloquence - in our art. There are numerous romantic depictions of war throughout art history that would seem to glorify some causes as noble and justifiable, presenting bloody conflicts as intrinsically heroic. The images that continue to resonate with me, however, are those I regard as compelling attempts to exorcise the demon by presenting it for what it is – murderous, devouring, ugly. Two examples come immediately to mind: Francisco Goya’s gripping masterpiece, “The Third of May, 1808,” and Pablo Picasso’s monumental and explosive protest, “Guernica.”

On the left side of the 1937 Picasso work we see a mother, her screaming face raised skyward as she cradles her lifeless infant. Six years after that painting was completed, and during the Nazi occupation of France, Picasso unveiled another masterpiece, this one full of a distinctly more tender angst, “First Steps.” Here, a clearly apprehensive mother, in a moment of bittersweet release, gingerly loosens her hold on her child, who looks straight ahead with wide-eyed anticipation, seeming to step right out of the canvas into a world turned upside down by war.

It is, I think, a similar spirit of wartime angst that is at the heart of the work by Erica A. Meuser, in her show titled “In America’s Wake,” now on view at Studio M in the Massillon Museum. But these works – black and white monotype prints with charcoal- are not outright renderings of military confrontations per se. Rather, they address the subtle, emotionally complicated – even insidious - domestic issues that grip our own warring society. Specifically, as we learn in Meuser’s statement for the show, the images initially rose from her feelings about the Iraqui War. Additionally, she acknowledges the further influence of related literature, history, and music, adding, “With their voices in my head - in a highly charged emotional moment – all my worlds collide, and I create my floating, ghostly compositions where my figures act and play out their role in my tale about mothers and sons lying and dying in the wake of America’s Wars.”

Emotionally charged moments indeed. All 14 of the large works here are executed in a mannered but fluid style not as much “drawn” in the traditional sense as they are exposed, or rubbed into view, as if excavated from deeply embedded memories and dreams. These are images that breathe a desperate urgency. Their surfaces are richly varied terrains of texture and tonality from ponderous, dense, blacks to wispy flourishes of velvety grays that hang like so much dispersing smoke. Sometimes Meuser’s figures are distorted and exaggerated, yet even at their most grotesque, they embody a searing, unforgettable pathos.

In “Day Four – Canoe Over Water and Graves,” the woman (mother?) appears lost in a somber trance as she holds the oars of her canoe floating over the face-down corpses beneath her. “The Battle” is a startling vision of a naked boy wresting one of the three arrows from the talons of a monstrous eagle.

In the heartrending, raw portrait, “Mothers and Sons II,” the central figure (of a mother?) clutches the limp body of a boy, her shoulders amply covered by the hands of the figure hovering behind. The hands of both figures, with their fingers splayed apart just so, are a grim ensemble of white shapes that bring to mind teeth bared in anguish.

After seeing that particular piece, I keep coming back to the hope embodied in Picasso’s “First Step,” even with its bitter irony of a mother releasing her child into a war-ravaged future. Is it so unreasonable to dream that either a single artwork, or collection of works, could ever move us to finally eradicate the horrors those works address? Probably. Maybe even certainly.

But remember our sidelong glance at history, and its cloying revelation of our unreasonableness as a species? Dream on, then. Powerful art, like Meuser’s, has a way of compelling us to do just that.

Photo: “Mothers and Sons II,” ink monotype with charcoal, by Erica A. Meuser, from her exhibition, “In America’s Wake,” on view in Studio M at the Massillon Museum, through February 21, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon

This is a touring exhibit. Next stop: Kent State University, Bowman Hall, April 1- May 21, 2010.

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