Where were you when word came over that bombs were dropping on Baghdad last Wednesday? By some cosmic coincidence, this reporter was visiting the short-lived but controversial show known as "23 Artists Respond to the Threat of War," which showed at the Momentum Gallery in Ventura from Jan. 14-19.
Specifically, I was looking at Chuck Alibierti's "Johnny '91," a papier-mache torso, bloodied and propped up on crutches like a side of beef on a makeshift rotisserie. A radio report announced that "the war has begun." There are few more chilling words in human experience. That, coupled with a grisly vision of the human fruits of battle made for a dizzying one-two punch to the senses.
It was, in fact, the intensity of Alibierti's work that inspired the council's executive director, Maureen Davidson, to put the show together. Stirred by her own feelings about the impending conflict and noting a weeklong down-time between the "Art/Life" show and the newly opened "Architectonics," she wanted to elicit some works from the Ventura art community.
Something else she elicited, as the record now shows, was the resignation of Bob Alviani, the council's volunteer president, on the Friday before the show opened. Alviani reacted to what he perceived as the presentation of political views in a publicly funded gallery and labeled Davidson a "loose cannon."
"I knew it would be controversial," Davidson said in the gallery just before news of the bombing was broadcast on the radio. "But I didn't expect this. Maybe I've said too much. The art should speak for itself. One positive aspect of all this is that more people have visited this show than any other we've had."
A woman in the gallery was taking notes on the art. "I wanted to form my opinion about all of this," she said. "And there is always the question of what is art?" As she strolled through the gallery, she compared notes with herself. "No, I don't think this is art," she concluded, looking at Eric Richards' "Morning Hangover." The piece, about official uses of torture in countries aided by the United States, consists of a porcelain sink in which is placed a wax face.
Another Richards piece greets the visitor outside the gallery door: "Arms Merchant" is a metal, life-size sculpture of a businessman whose rough skin is made of metal-encased toy soldiers. Like many of the artists in the show, Richards is not one to mince imagery.
The art that made up "23 Artists Respond to the Threat of War" ran the gamut of responses, at varying pitches of emotion and varying levels of eloquence. The silly, the impassioned and the abstract all crowded into the gallery. Over half of the works were done at the 11th hour, after word of the open exhibit hit the local art scene.
Between the more patiently and thoughtfully wrought pieces in the show were hastily assembled ones. The subject of war makes for easy shock value and can become the stuff of kitsch. Doug Lipton's shrine-like assemblage entitled "G.I. Jesus"--ornate plastic artifacts around a Christ figure fitted with a helmet and an automatic rifle--is a doubly cheap shot, preying on the loaded imagery of both war and religion.
The two themes intertwine more subtly in Joe Cardella's "War Is Hell," a crucifix painted over with the text, "Don't kill our fathers, brothers, sons for gas $." Steve Knauff threw together a toy shooting gallery, grenade-like balloons and other junk material with a soundtrack of harsh hard-core rock music for his interactive construction, "War Is Fun." In fact, the fun factor of the art trivializes its subject.
Art can seize on inflammatory imagery or rely on the deeper power of metaphor. The most memorable pieces here had nothing to do with the stereotypical kitsch of war or current headlines. Sjaya Gottlieb's head-shaped stone had been transformed into a head of nails--the natural order is painfully disrupted. Similarly, Paul Lindhard's "Warrior Flower" was a stone sprouting a bronze bird of paradise blossom, suggesting natural beauty hardened.
One of the most striking pieces, Paul Benavidez's "Filistin," jutted out forcefully from the wall with a kind of vivid 3-D Cubist approach. A piece dating from 1988, "Filistin" takes its title from the Palestinian newspaper that went underground after the Israeli occupation. Benavidez believes his vision of cultural discord and invasion was prophetic of the present struggle.
Clearly, the prevailing message of the art here was anti-war--if not didactically and explicitly, then by inference.
Should the Momentum Gallery afford equal time to alternative views? It might be hard-pressed to find any.
Heading home at twilight, the red sky over the Rincon took on an ominous cast. We see the world, even that small corner of it that we call home, differently when war is raging. It's hard to maintain a status quo, face-forward and keep-the-machinery-rolling attitude. Likewise, it's hard for artists to keep their minds on purely aesthetic matters. Reports from the real world keep intruding.