Shotgun Review Archive

The Landscape of War

By Shotgun Reviews January 10, 2008

The exhibition The Landscape of War--now wrapping up after running for two months at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art--is a poignant display of individual artworks that vary in message and style yet collectively address the "War on Terror" mess that the US of A has gotten itself into, and reaffirms artists ability (and tradition...) to be politically relevant in their message without being pushy or ingratiating, in order that we the viewer might be inspired in a practical manner to deal/fix/remove this burden on our collective society and culture: the United States' war agenda. It is quite shocking, actually, that amidst an Iraq war, USA/Iran saber-rattling and Pakistan government failures, that more art venues and curators aren't taking on presenting the reactions of artists (not to mention the dissent) to the quandary that is the War on Terror. Yes, CCA made an attempt with the recent Apocalypse Now exhibition (although that show read more like a history lesson buried deep within an over-designed exhibition that showcased the wherewithal of the curator and his team more than the artwork itself, but that's another story...) and I'm sure there are a few more exhibitions that missed my radar (if you know of any, feel free to list in the Comments section, to your right, please...). Furthermore, how deep are contemporary artists themselves engaged within a dialogue of these same issues, and are there even enough of them to fill a gallery? Maybe general apathy is the problem, or lack of funding/interest on the part of institutions. However, after viewing The Landscape of War, I was inspired and compelled to promote this rare action by Anne Veh, guest curator at the SJICA, as well as tip my hat towards these artists (enough to fill a gallery too...) and their art work, that stands tall not only with individual artistic quality, but also in the curator-formulated context of the exhibition. As mentioned above, The Landscape of War shows a range of artworks that address the idea of landscape both conceptually and physically as a place of existence, playing with the word "landscape" through varied interpretations and contexts. It could also be said that the works of art, together, create a momentary landscape to view the context of War, as in to take a viewpoint, as viewer, upon a landscape of discussion and critique. Housed in the main gallery (right-half of the SJICA), every available space on the walls is occupied by various media: painting, drawing, photo, video and sculpture.
birk_wallview.jpg Sandow Birk--well-known for his reuse of compositions from painters of the Neo-classicism and Romantic schools--has contributed one painting and three monumental woodcuts from his series Depravities of War, each depicting what might be called a "typical day on the job" for US soldiers in Iraq: searching, arresting, destroying. The pieces, titled Invasion, Destruction and Desecration belay a haunting truth under the simplistic style of the woodcut print: burning mosques, corpses and violation and respect of Iraqi people. It is difficult to stand far enough away from the large-scale work within the gallery space to get a safe overview--you are unable to escape/distance yourself from the desperate reality of the scene(s). Strategic. arcega_spammaps.jpg By using odd materials such as rice grains and slices of Spam (yes, Spam), Michael Arcega taps into the oddity and creativity that is truly only reserved for the lucid artistic thinker. Arcega's well-depicted map of the World formed from precise slices of Spam meat, pin-mounted in a display box mounted on the wall and titled Spam/Maps, World, suggests to me a world built from rotting or scorched flesh...not appealing as an idea but visually stunning by taking a medium/food product with a wealth of associations into another context altogether. Another Arcega artwork, titled Terrorice: Grain Aide #1/3, are hand grenades formed from sculpted rice balls and arranged on a shelf, outside their accompanying grenade box, is a simple, lovely, visual pun. According to the exhibition text, Arcega has combined rice with the form of a weapon to question/undermine the USA's aid program of supplying grain to war-torn and developing countries for possible political leverage. Explosive. retsek_bodies.jpg Fanny Retsek, through making small individual pen marks over large sheets of paper that grow into abstract forms, counts her personal activities related to war goods (such as oil consumed) or the number of dead in Iraq (bodies). The marks themselves become--in an abstract manner--tiny, tiny stacks of oil drums and tiny, tiny stacks of humans corpses, all very neat and lined up: a harsh reality beneath beautiful images. Resistance. Trevor Paglen is represented by two photographs from his series documenting possible secret and clandestine actions and locations from military bases and off-limits installations in the Nevada desert. Taken from impossible distances using telescopic lenses, the photos really don't give us much to see in the first place: some lights in the distance here, a mysteriously lit plane there. Having titled each work with a location and a time frame of observance (example: Unidentified Light Source, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~17 miles) somehow we believe Paglen, that he has found something of secret importance. But then again, we want to believe in the unknown, in the X-Files-esque mystery of it all...a "something" only the military could possibly keep under wraps. Operation: Secret Agenda. Christoph Draeger shows a video-montage with found footage from a Hungarian post-nuclear education film overdubbed with narration by George W. Bush in his inaugural speech of 2004. The artwork, titled Helenés-Apparition of Freedom, deftly contrasts a speech by a known war-monger on the fundamentals of freedom (and how America will provide that freedom whether you want it or not) while we witness burned bodies, a city destroyed...and, the difficulty of placing a gas mask on a civilian who has just seen their world blown to complete hell. Terrorist-in-Chief. While it might sound wrong to say I greatly enjoyed this show about War and its consequences, it is true nonetheless. War is tantalizing. Images of War can be even more tantalizing, knowing full well we should avert our eyes before our stomachs become sick, but having to look anyway, and look and look again. Maybe that is exactly what makes The Landscape of War so compelling to me as an exhibition: the more you look at each image and contemplate the message of the artist, the greater the satisfaction, reveling in the capacity of art to reference the unsaid rejection, dare I say subtle rebellion, against the War of Terror...or, at least by some of us. Still more visually engaging artwork hangs on the walls in The Landscape of War than is reported here, but not for long.

The exhibition only lasts until January 19, 2008. The Landscape of War November 10, 2007 - January 19, 2008 Opening Reception: November 9, 6-8 pm Mike Arcega, Sandow Birk, Enrique Chagoya, James Drake, Christoph Draeger, Mark Klett, Michael Light, Trevor Paglen, Ligorano/Reese, Fanny Retsek, Pamela Wilson Ryckman San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art 560 South First Street San Jose, CA Gallery Hours TueWedFri: 10:00 - 5:00 Thursday: 10:00 - 8:00 Saturday: 12:00 - 5:00 Sunday/Monday: Closed Free Admission

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