Images of conflict, residue of discomfort
Artists witness war with objectivity in ‘For the Record’
BEVERLY - Objectivity, that lofty ideal of serious journalists, has lost a lot of its sheen in recent years. Everybody’s biased, the argument goes; nobody can be truly objective. News programs that dispense more shrill opinion than actual reporting further that assumption. There’s so much shrill opinion out there that society has become more and more polarized.
Complete objectivity may not exist, but reporting and reflecting on events in a way that allows readers and viewers to form their own opinions does. “For the Record: Searching for Objectivity in Global Conflict,’’ a sober and powerful exhibit at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, taps several artists who aim to witness war without either promoting or condemning it. They leave room for the moral complexity of conflict and let viewers come to their own conclusions. There’s nothing shrill or pat here, but there is a great deal of discomfort - which is a healthy thing in the face of war.
The show was put together by social historian Gordon Arnold, artist Rob Roy, and Montserrat’s gallery director, Leonie Bradbury, as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A symposium based on the exhibit will be held on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, featuring Robert Storr, painter, dean of the Yale University School of Art, and a frequent interpreter of the work of Gerhard Richter, a featured artist in “For the Record.’’
The centerpiece of “For the Record’’ is Richter’s “September,’’ a digital print based on a painting he made in response to 9/11, depicting United Flight 175 striking the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Richter famously makes blurred paintings from photos, a practice that examines assumptions about both mediums: What is fact, what is fiction, and does one carry more truth than the other? Here, the image indelible to anyone who saw it on TV that day has been smeared with brush strokes. The blurring evokes the passage of time and the alteration of memory, yet the picture still causes a catch in the throat.
In another work, the book “War Cut,’’ Richter uses photographic details of one of his abstract paintings to illustrate news stories about the beginning of the Iraq war. The fluid, expressionistic paintings in fiery tones are not at all pictures; for the viewer, they become a screen upon which to project responses to the initial news of that war.
There are several books in the exhibit, most of which the viewer is forbidden from touching - which makes it impossible to really experience them. There’s Fiona Banner’s “THE NAM,’’ a fat paperback in which she relates her own hair-raising narrative, scene by scene, of several Vietnam War films. Sophie Ristelhueber’s “Fait (Aftermath)’’ simply features aerial photographs of the Kuwaiti desert shot after the first Gulf War. Some read like abstract drawings or cave paintings; there’s an odd distance, a sense that someone has made a mark here. Others feature crashed, unidentifiable objects, looking like relics. Yet these drawings, these relics, have scored the earth.
Harun Farocki’s landmark 1988 film, “Images of the World and the Inscription of War,’’ here transferred to video, coolly, methodically, and sometimes shockingly unpacks how visual technologies shape our beliefs. The piece is a montage, in which Farocki weaves together tales of visual documentation. The French government mandated ID photos of Algerian women without their veils in the 1960s. During World War II, Allied forces shot reconnaissance photos that picked up images of Auschwitz, though they didn’t recognize at the time what they were looking at. (It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the CIA realized the photos had included the concentration camp.) In both cases, the strategies purveyed as much ignorance as they did knowledge.
Another group of artists in the show offers more narrative work, hotter, and more immediate. Steve Mumford travels in Afghanistan and Iraq, making drawings, watercolors, and snapshots of American soldiers and the local populations. Then he returns to his studio in the states and makes large-scale paintings, such as “Going Back In,’’ an intimate, edgy portrait of four soldiers hunched in a tank on their way to battle. Not one of them looks ready. Benjamin Lowy shoots his photos in “Iraq/Perspectives’’ from the inside of a Humvee: Iraqi women in veils, another woman carrying eggs through a market, a man being frisked. We view it all through a small window, almost as if watching it on TV.
James O’Neill, a Boston artist and Iraqi war vet, makes art to answer the question “What was it like over there?’’ His big charcoal drawing “Tigris River’’ depicts a floating, dead horse. Its mound is near the top of the frame, with the dark smudge and wash of charcoal streaks beneath - a toxic river, a picture of hell. Nina Berman’s to-the-point video “Purple Hearts’’ features the monologues of wounded vets, considering what they’ve been through and what they are left with.
Matthew Ernst and Rob Roy make more abstract works, brimming with war images. Ernst’s mixed-media painting “Bomb Swimmy’’ features a black helicopter and a fleet of warplanes. Roy’s monotype “Witness #41’’ sports silhouettes of camels and helicopters, but also, curiously, a moose and a chicken. Both artists share a boy’s fascination with the accoutrements of war, but recognize that the reality of conflict is darker and more complicated than any boy’s dream.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.