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The Art of War

by Bruce Bauman

I had wanted to write about The Berlin Wall, how it was the greatest piece of public art I have ever seen. How it so perfectly signaled the life of late 20th century Western culture. How its blank eastern side perfectly formed the back-of-the-canvas against the raging colors and graffiti and slogans of freedom that adorned the western walls. How walls can divide us but they cannot destroy us. How The Wall remains a sign of art in its truest, democratic sense. But now the Cold War, what some have dubbed the Silent WWIII, seems as ancient as one shot in Sarajevo-or was it Dallas? And we are in this new war, with dangers too frightening to contemplate. Every day I wake thinking I must be living in a Philip K. Dick novel, that in reality Bush is not President, the bombs have not razed Iraq and Afghanistan, Korea is not boiling nuclear rods, and India and Pakistan do not stare down the Line of Control daring nuclear incineration. Despite the paranoid color alert system, which is certainly not based on Kandinsky's color theory, when I think of dead Iraqis and potentially so many more deaths because no matter what bush&dick, those non-elected shredders of the American Constitution, proclaim, I know this "war" is not over. But this is an art magazine, and I want to write about art. I want to find my faith in art, in its power to redeem. Right after 9/11 I headed to the galleries and museums because that is where, in the external world, I look to find my inner space. Yet now, how can I not wonder if my faith is nothing but a fool's journey equal to that of those who believe in a heaven peopled either by virgins or by rich white men?

In the last months I have traveled through LA's Museums and galleries looking for solace, perhaps even a clue as to what has truly transpired under the radar of the mass media. How we have arrived at this reality.

The first show I went to see was Bill Viola's The Passions at The Getty Center. Viola is widely acclaimed as a premier and pioneer video artist of our time and this work's immediate impact is impressive. I returned three times-and each time my passion waned. I have to come equate Viola with Spielberg; a massive talent with complete mastery and manipulation of his form. Despite a desire to be more, the work lacks the ineffable depths I seek in art. This seems wrong because there is in Viola the aspiration to the spiritual-the themes in these videos incorporate and draw from Renaissance masters. I want to be generous, and perhaps it is unfair to use this literary term, because I believe his intentions are noble, but Viola strikes me as an unreliable narrator. Unlike his more naturally visionary early work, and the present work of Michal Rovner and Shirin Neshat, two women whose work relies on thematic "borders," I feel now as if he is trying too hard to win me over to his side, which inspires more doubt than faith.

This reference to Neshat and Rovner seems to start a pattern as I begin my search. Much of the work that intrigued me feels as if it is outside a definable nexus. In the UNESCO exhibition at the 18th Street Arts Complex Gallery, I found artists who address, in their unique styles, the centrality of their own culture, and while remaining borderless in their creativity and content, also acknowledge Western influence. Most specifically, I saw this cross-cultural artistry in the miniature paintings such as Whiteman Still Sitting of Nusra Latif Qureshi from Pakistan, in the videos of Cameroon artist Gottfried Kadjo who confronts the pervasive influence of American media, and in the wildly funny and bravely pointed drawings of Popok Tri Wahyudi from Indonesia.

At LA Louver, this pattern continued with the English painter John Virtue, a loner who has lived for years in the Southwest English countryside and who seems to have wandered in from the stanza of a Wordsworth poem. He is unconnected to any movement or transitory moment in the art world and has created entrancing abstract landscapes from his deeply felt interior vision. His canvases, which explode in various shades of blacks and whites and encourage images of the end of smokestack centuries over the polluted Thames, or Tomahawk missile pyres over the Euphrates, possess a tranquility that lingers long after the initial firestorm. Virtue recently was appointed Associate Artist at the National Gallery and has moved to London, and I am intrigued to see what new body of work he will create, which will be showcased at the end of his tenure.

But it was during my three visits to MOCA that I found what I was looking for. No, not Lucien Freud's bloated figures-even his meager, visually dyspeptic figures seem bloated-who captures the end of the century angst as a counter point to early 20th Century emaciated figures of Schiele and Kokoschka. They are weighed down with a century of insatiability for good and evil, for destruction, for a need to understand the horror of what has caused such dissipation. His images, whether they are self-portraits or of unknown figures, make me think. Hurt me. And, as artists not blessed with genius will do, he became so skilled and in control of his materials that his portraits give a tactility to the turmoil of an inner life. Still, I felt, and this is not to be undervalued, his work thrust me backward, into a time of demons past rather than forward into the terror of a time coming.

In the gallery adjacent to Freud there is an exhibition of Laura Owens' work, an almost too easy target. Owens has learned from Sun Tzu that "all war is deception" better than many American generals 'cause she sure has deceived many smart people into thinking her work displays more than immature themes with competent painting skills. Owens seems to fall in step in the line of descent behind the over-hyped work of Schnabal, Salle and Fishl. Owens, who uses a stereotypical feminine sensibility and touch, reveals herself in a painting done just prior to the exhibition's opening in which she inserted seemingly playful war protesters. I hope she, and others of this kitschy ilk, either will develop in ways I cannot yet see, or, more likely, will be the last in the line of a turgid Post Modernism.

The painting that overwhelmed me, stunned me into euphoria, was Ed Ruscha's 1987 Nothing Landscape. The words may be overused but this is what I felt looking at this piece: beauty, power and prescience. It pulled me into a haunting portent of what has been and what is coming. I lost myself, staring into this timeless, vast aura of grays and blacks. Each time I left the museum and drove to the Gagosian Gallery to see his photographs and books, which survey Ruscha's forty year voyage through America, I was wrapped in this vision. He shows us America with no razzle-dazzle, no blinders, no pretense. With his exquisite eye, he has recorded the rhythms of the American road, both actual and metaphorical. Beginning with the book of Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations published in 1963-he traveled along Route 66 from his native Oklahoma to LA-and continuing through a lifetime of observing in photos of turpentine, wax seal, Spam and all those gas stations, Ruscha has allowed me to see that one man's detritus is another's man essentiality-or both. Ruscha told the LA Times, "The quest for paradox has always gripped me as an artist. There has to be negative conflict. Disturbing things have an attraction to them." And it is this quest, even if unstated or unconscious at the time, to make sense of the American Dream that makes Ruscha's work so vital. There is loneliness in those gas stations, Beverly Hills swimming pools, apartment buildings and parking lots. In many of these works, an eerie sadness collides with a disturbing grandness. I see in them an America that promises a graceful expanse and wonder for some, and another America, an America led by two draft dodging heirs-one to a railroad fortune and the other a son of a CIA boss and inheritor of an oil fortune-and their "need" to conquer. For I can imagine in the eyes of Bush and Cheney, children of that same open spaced West, that Rimmy Jim's Chevron belongs not to Jim, but to Chevron, just as Baghdad "belongs" to their America.

In Ruscha's work one finds a world can at once conjure multiple visions, explain a past and see a future. No photo struck my native New York heart more than one taken in 1961, from the Staten Island Ferry of Lower Manhattan-before the Towers stood magisterial over the skyline and where, now, their invisible shadow will forever fall. We live in a time of lost memory and twisted words, and Ruscha, perhaps better than any artist today, understands the by-play, the conflict or the potential epiphany between word and image. In the 2002 lithograph Sin-Without, he has merged the imagery of Nothing Landscape and the chilling, religious billboards one sees along the American Highway, and infused it with wonder and questioning which foreshadowed the darkness that now permeates our country.

And it is this darkness, oddly enough, that inspires hope in me. As WWI, not WWII or the Russian Revolution, truly set the tone for the culture of the last century, this new war, the terror of this potential WWIV, will set the tone for decades to come. The veneer of prosperity and peace that has lulled much of America and The Western world for the last 30 years may come to an end in this century. I don't know what is coming. No doubt some new millennial ism will seek to explain all. Still the question remains: is it possible, necessary, for an artist to create work to stop the madness of the approaching nuclear explosions and future holocausts? I think of Dr. Strangelove and The Deer Hunter, the novels of Pynchon, Steve Erickson and Donald Antrim. I recall the joyous hope of the singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall fell. And I dream of the art of Ed Ruscha where I hear the words of Bertolt Brecht:

In these dark times
Will there be singing,
Yes, there will be singing
Of these dark times.


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