SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2002

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James Turrell
"Painter's eye in three dimensions"
by David Moos

ART AND CALAMITY
September 11 One Year Later

by Dennis Raverty

The tragic events of September 11 were such a watershed in our collective American psyche that we're not really sure what the ultimate impact will be on our nation-economically, politically, socially, spiritually or culturally. Part of art's function, I believe, is to help us to cope with, work through and make sense of these experiences.

As can be expected from the sheer magnitude of such an event, artists have addressed it from a wide range of perspectives as one would expect in our heterogeneous, postmodern world. Without attempting to be comprehensive, I want to discuss three artists whose development I've followed over the past year and who have addressed these events in interesting, stylistically diverse ways.
Michael Mulhern's connection to the disaster is direct, because he was in his fifth floor corner studio with large windows directly across from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. He was photographing his recent large abstract paintings when the towers were hit and turned his camera on the event. The resulting digital images have a disturbingly elegant formal quality of composition-the gleaming surface of the tower juxtaposed with the burning debris and smoke that spewed out.

I visited Mulhern in his studio in late May, when his street was first re-opened to the public without police escort. His large warehouse-style windows, which previously must have been mostly blocked by the towers, now provided a panoramic view of the gaping pit and its clean-up crews.

When the attacks occurred, Mulhern was working on a series of large, roughly eight foot square canvases entitled "Ashes"-the strangely prophetic title having already been in place since early summer.
Over a loosely executed, cubist-inspired structure of brushed linear elements, Mulhern mopped, scumbled, scrubbed and smeared an aluminum-based paint mixed with beeswax, raw pigments and other materials in a maelstrom of expressionistic fury to the point of nearly obliterating the underpainting and, with it, the structure. The dynamic process of the overpainting is revealed because it is translucent. The underlying linear elements disappear behind the overpainting only to re-emerge elsewhere and the overall effect suggests the collapse of a structure into chaos. Viewed in his studio against the backdrop of the pit and the rubble, they movingly evoke a tragic terror.

Their apocalyptic quality is reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Deluge" drawings done late in his career or those bombs exploding over towns in Ludwig Meidner's German Expressionist paintings from the eve of the First World War.

Luckily, Mulhern's raw pigment and aluminum-based paints required him to wear goggles and a respirator, which helped him survive the aftermath of the collapse when fine, airborne dust filled the studio and covered everything with snow-like drifts of gray ash. All electricity and plumbing was out, but Mulhern had a flashlight and a battery-operated radio, and stayed in his studio until mid-afternoon when Mayor Giuliani called for survivors to move east or north. Walking towards the East River with his respirator and goggles, Mulhern witnessed police and firemen collapsing from inhalation of smoke and dust.

Mulhern couldn't get back into his studio for months but presently as his building is being repaired, he continues work on the "Ashes" series. While not a reaction to the event, since Mulhern started work on them before the attacks, they nonetheless seem like a parallel development with an uncanny prescience.

Jeffrey Adams and Laura Makowski, Lady Liberty, 2001, fabric (photo courtesy the artists).


Jeffery Adams' and Laura Makowski's provocative Lady Liberty (2001) apparently fashions a birka-the traditional head-to-foot covering of Muslim women, which the Taliban made compulsory-from an American flag. Immediately following the disaster, when flags bedecked the streets and a burst of patriotic emotion, the piece was even more striking and upsetting than it is now, a year later.

Adams and Makowski's piece disturbs us because it references the role of our government in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the United States helped set up the repressive regime of the Taliban which, in turn, had close ties to Al Qaeda, the international terrorist group blamed for the September 11 attacks.

The artists point out that they didn't desecrate any flags to make this piece, and a careful examination of the placement of the stars supports this claim. The stars (sewn in by a professional embroiderer) and dark blue field in which they are situated droop over the head and help disguise the net around the face through which the woman wearer would see.

Lady Liberty makes a darkly ironic comment on America's role in laying the foundations for Islamic fundamentalist unrest, using clothing as a signifier of collective national conscience, moral outrage and shame. This highly transgressive piece could be taken as blaspheming against either Islam or national pride, but it is meant in a spirit of reconciliation and sympathy with the Afghan people as fellow victims of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that drove the September 11 terrorists.

The most ambitious piece I've seen is certainly Bruno Surdo's huge nine by thirty-nine foot multi-paneled painting Tragedy, Memory, and Honor, finished in February after just five short months of work. Surdo, based in Chicago, traveled to New York City immediately after the disaster and had access to the site. While there, he picked up some memos and receipts that had been scattered by the blast, and made drawings and photographs of the rubble. The debris he brought home is strewn across the painting; the images of the devastation provided the basis of the landscape in the painting's right foreground.

Bruno Surdo, Tragedy, Memory, and Honor, 2002, mixed media, 9 by 39 feet (photo courtesy the artist).


Reproductions of this painting are deceptive, because they allow us to see the entire picture at once. However, its length means that viewers standing in front of it can see only one section at a time, and the whole painting unfolds its theme as viewers walk along the wall on which it hangs. It therefore has a cinematographic quality mildly reminiscent of the panoramas that were so popular in the nineteenth century (in fact the academic technique and melodramatic figures also strongly recall nineteenth century painting).

The painting seems meant to be read from left to right like a book. At the far left, figures run and scramble through the darkness, mysteriously lit by a Caravaggioesque light that throws them into dramatic chiaroscuro. As they rush out, firemen rush in. In the central section, a crowd of ghostly figures faces us directly, like silent witnesses. They are bathed in a smoky mist and as they recede into the distance they become more vague and indistinct until they disappear into infinity. Also on this central panel, the artist has made many expressionistic, painterly marks that complement the mist and become a sort of surface "noise" that returns the viewer to the surface of the painting in which is embedded debris from the site.

Tragedy, Memory, and Honor evokes the process of psychological recall, as the realistic, particular faces become blurred in memory. Surdo was sensitive enough not to use faces of those who had lost their lives, instead working from live models to capture specific visages. For anyone who visited New York City in those first few months after the disaster, this section of the painting recalls the multitude of pictures posted by loved ones of lost friends and family members.

In the final section of the painting, people emerge from the rubble, reunite, and walk away into the light. Despite minor misgivings about the theatricality of the entire piece (and especially this last section), I admire the vast ambition and tireless labor that went into its creation. Surdo aims to paint the Raft of the Medusa for our times and the result is moving.

The full effect of last September's tragedy on artistic production is not yet known. However, this much is clear: the unprecedented disaster still reverberates through our consciousness and artists no doubt will continue to help us grapple with the ongoing questions it poses.

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