War and Pieces

War and Pieces

“My conception of the show was different prior to the invasion of Ukraine,” says painter, educator and, in this context, curator Steven DiGiovanni. “Because the invasion seemed to affect the complexion of the work that we have here.”

“Here” is Hilles Gallery, at Creative Arts Workshop, and the work, by four local artists, forms Proximity, the show. Early in the planning, DiGiovanni says he was orienting his vision for the exhibition around the “paradox” of people as both assessors of reality and beings who are in some deep sense impervious to assessment. “I was thinking about the idea of… a collective notion of what reality is—that… what is true or what is real is based on a collection of individual subjectivities. … And the idea that we’re born, we die, and in effect each one of us becomes a kind of cipher.”

Then war broke out in Ukraine—or at least, after years of geopolitically instigated civil war there, our consciousness of it did—and DiGiovanni’s thoughts turned to another paradox: the ability of something seemingly half a world away (the war) or half a century ago (the Cold War) to feel like it’s here and now. Thus his show came to its theme and name: Proximity.

The aforementioned “complexion” shift caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be clearest in the works of John Keefer and Joan Fitzsimmons. Keefer’s large-format paintings depict ships engulfed in fire and smoke amid splats, drips and drizzles of paint, the painter’s grid lines still peeking through. Six months ago, ships ablaze would likely have evoked accidental catastrophes like the one that befell the Sanchi, an oil tanker that collided with a cargo ship in early 2018 and exploded into an inferno that lasted longer than a week. Now in Keefer’s images, including two depicting the Sanchi, we see intentional wreckings—bombs dropped or rockets fired, perhaps in the Sea of Azov or the Dnipro River.

Fitzsimmons’s photographs would’ve conjured the Eastern Bloc even without the backdrop of a new Cold War, but now, 15 years after she took them, the association feels more visceral. They were captured in Poland within a Soviet-era apartment rise, its hallways defined by institutional greens and rationed lighting. With her camera pointed through the peephole of the door where she was staying, Fitszimmons channeled Soviet- and now US-style surveillance. She “wait[ed] for something to happen; anything!” her statement says. “The most banal of movements, figurative gestures, became the material of great intrigue.” Framed and curved by the tight peephole, the spectral scenes that resulted evince not just the power of the spy but also, as DiGiovanni notes, the paranoia.

The exhibition’s other artists, Nathan Lewis and David Borawski, move Proximity in very different directions. Lewis contributes layered mixed media works and small, deceptively simple ink drawings, the latter rendered mostly on plain unruled notebook paper push-pinned to walls. Literally and emotionally dark, their pitch-black medium is driven from hand to paper like calligraphic sprays of blood. Thinking of the war, Lewis’s old women become Russian babushkas or the Ukrainian equivalent. Huddles of men become soldiers at camp. On the yellowed title page ripped from a copy of Crime and Punishment, a man raises an axe to its apex over someone bent and bound. DiGiovanni compares these drawings to Goya’s “darkly satirical” etchings in the Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War series, and, after brushing up on my Goya, so do I. For one thing, Lewis’s executioner quite clearly echoes the key figure in Lo mismo, from the War series, though I find the newer version much more terrifying.

Borawski’s works—some of them at least—manage to lighten the mood via their materiality if not their content. On the gallery’s second floor, the sculptor’s smallest of four pieces, The Time Is Right for a Palace Revolution, features bright plastic gas canisters shot with cartoonish bullet hole and skull-and-crossbones stickers. His (and the exhibition’s) largest, I Know the Darkness Blinds You, extends from the second-floor ceiling all the way to the ground floor—a drapery of shiny plastic flags like the ones you might see at a car dealership, except in funereal black and white and hanging limply down like kelp. DiGiovanni describes Borawski’s work as “politically charged” but without the impulse to beat the viewer over the head (even with an upstairs piece titled Two Blows to the Back of Your Head). “That’s what I like about his work,” the curator says. “It can bring about associations but in no way does it seem to purport to promote any specific agenda.”

DiGiovanni has achieved a similar feat with the show itself, which invokes the political but lets viewers have their own thoughts and experiences. The curator’s statement comprises just three elegant paragraphs, insightful but open-ended. The works bear no explanatory or even title cards. Two discreet binders, one on the first floor and one on the second, provide a list of works along with artist statements and CVs—there if you want them, ignored if you don’t.

It’s a rare and refreshing display of restraint and pluralism in today’s arts world, where viewers are so often treated, rather artlessly, as marks to be managed or, worse still, assimilated.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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