New history paintings tell stories old as war
George Washington appears in long johns and boots beside his cot in a tent in “Washington Slept Here,’’ one of the more comic of Betty Herbert’s war paintings at Childs Gallery. Herbert, 82, is an unschooled artist who started painting at 54. Her exhibit, “America’s Wars,’’ is a sweeping trip through selected conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq.
Like history painters of old, Herbert is a storyteller. She packs her paintings with action, humor, and pathos. These are fervent, declarative works, brushed and smeared and dripped onto the canvas with great heart. She has nothing of the skill we associate with past painters of history — think of the precision of Jacques-Louis David — but her naive depiction of figures and occasionally awkwardly skewed perspective fits right in with a style popular now with many young, art-school trained artists.
The Civil War painting “Blue at Bay’’ captures a blue-clad Union soldier ducking beneath two angry steeds — one fiery red, the other a fierce, mottled gray-brown. Lines are fluid, colors pop, and the lush green background has such vibrating energy it hardly feels like background. “Collapsing Buildings,’’ a depiction of ground zero, shows jagged shards in thickly laid-on paint — the material and gesture carry the emotion of the scene as much as the image does. The skeletal remains of the twin towers lean away from each other, and smaller, nearby structures bow, as if in mourning.
Herbert also captures small, human moments, as in “Skittles,’’ from the Iraq series, depicting a green-beige jumble of helmets and shoulders, bent over a single red package of the candies. “King George and Queen Elizabeth in London during the Blitz’’ revolves around the demure Elizabeth, in a pink suit and pearls, standing amid gray rubble.
These are stories of heroism in the face of devastation. Most contemporary artists take a more confrontational approach to war; last year, British artist Jeremy Deller made a road trip around the United States towing the shell of a car bombed in Baghdad. Herbert’s paintings are not so unsettling. They are dramatic, sympathetic rallying cries — the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air! — in all, a delightful assortment of war paintings. Maybe that in itself is unsettling.
Fredo Conde’s stylized sculptures of ordinary objects have much in common with Antoniadis and Stone’s. His painted wood “Briefcase’’ and “Modern Trinkets’’ (a phone and a watch) are positioned beneath “Modern Painting’’ (on canvas) — a faux painting in an art exhibit. Or is it?
Alone started out as a graffiti artist, and you can see the muscle of his gesture in the sweet painting “Black and Blue,’’ of a squat, bare-chested guy in grays and beiges who has a small, heart-shaped bruise on his chest. It hangs near Jesse Littlefield’s prints of a magazine cover design, with two graphic fists holding daggers — recalling the bold Soviet printmaking in the first half of the 20th century. Matthew Rich’s exquisite yet homely paper constructions fit perfectly alongside Littlefield’s crisp graphics. And Raul Gonzalez’s Looney-Tunes-inspired paintings of characters in scuffles have plenty of punch, but they’re also almost secretly gorgeous and politically daring.
There’s more to see in “Boston Related,’’ including David Ording’s delicate, realist little canvas of a Boston police officer playing a keyboard in what appears to be a burgled museum gallery, painted with such refinement it would feel out of place in this show save for its provocative content.
“Time and Distance’’ has a tiny, far-off figure in polka dots moving through a forest of glowing, gnarly red trees, with eyeballs hovering among the dark leaves. The title hints at absence, if not loss, but that figure can’t be mistaken or lost, even though it’s far away.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of artist Fredo Conde was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.