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Battle Cries

AVAM Explores Conflict and Resolution

Soldier Boys: Irving Norman considers military bearing in his oil painting "Teaching the Young."
Henry Darger, "15 at Battle of Norma Catherine"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 10/10/2001

The Art of War and Peace: Toward an End to Hatred

American Visionary Art Museum through Sept. 1, 2002

You may emerge shell-shocked from the new exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum. After walking through Armageddon, will anybody be in the mood for a post-museum lunch?

The Art of War and Peace: Toward an End to Hatred is true to the museum's mission to present broadly thematic mega-shows. There are 250 pieces by 65 self-taught artists here, so your walk will take some time. If the opening sections of the exhibit, which are devoted to specific wars and to more generic apocalyptic scenarios, seem to pack more visual punch than the concluding, peace-oriented sections, it may simply be because evil generally makes for a more compelling picture.

Like previous AVAM exhibits, there's a tendency toward sprawl. There's a lot of war and peace and who knows what else on view, and not everything installed in a particular section seems at home there. But the overall impact is powerful enough to blow all reservations out of the water (to use the sort of hyperbole to which these artists are prone). This is one of the museum's best exhibits, and, God knows, it's the most timely show one could ever hope for (or fear).

The opening section more or less deals with particular wars. The oldest item in the show is an anonymous early-20th-century wood sculpture of the ill-fated battleship Maine, inspiration for the Spanish-American War's rallying cry. It is forcefully if naively carved. The most pungently conveyed war is Vietnam. A veteran from the earliest years of American involvement, Richard Olsen, has an oil painting, "P.O.W." (1964), which depicts a kneeling figure whose back is to us. Its tiny scale and spare imagery has a bigger impact than the bombastic artwork one might expect in a show dedicated in large part to the pomp and mass destruction of war. There's a real feeling of isolation and vulnerability.

Also haunting are the narrative textiles woven by the Hmong, an ethnic group in Laos and Vietnam much disrupted by the Vietnam War. For centuries, Hmong people only used abstract geometric designs in their traditional textiles, but in the 1960s and '70s they incorporated figurative references to soldiers, airplanes, and running refugees. Their textiles also contain phrases in English describing these scenes: the word "leg" next to a woven severed leg.

One of the best pieces in the opening section is Irving Norman's oil painting "Battleship" (1975). Norman doesn't depict a particular conflict but focuses on what it must be like for hundreds of sailors to carry out all the below-decks functions on a warship. Everything is gray and oppressive as gaunt, nude, near-identical workers slave away under the watchful eye of the uniformed officers at the top of the vessel. A Navy recruiting poster it isn't.

The exhibit's pictures of historical wars are displayed in close proximity to others that go beyond history and stare down Armageddon. One of the most striking renderings of the end of the world is frequent AVAM exhibitor Alex Grey's oil painting "Nuclear Crucifixion" (1980), which features Christ on the cross backed by a reddish mushroom cloud. Most of the show's apocalyptic artwork is filled with biblically themed pictures and quotes, but Grey cuts to the topical-turned-eternal chase by only giving us the Bomb and the Savior.

After surviving this section of the show, you enter a strange little section called "Eracism," the subjects of which range from Jews during the Holocaust to the four African-American girls killed in the 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church. Although there are strong individual works in this section, its consideration of racism expands the exhibit's curatorial focus to the point that it seems as if any vile activity is fair (or foul) game for inclusion.

By the time you move into the much happier homestretch of the exhibit, you may find yourself thinking, Ah, peace at last. Malcah Zeldis' oil paintings "Peaceable Kingdom I" and "II" offer a good place to pause. The works' happy human groupings are studies in interracial harmony, overseen by President Lincoln and fleshed out by animals akin to those painted by Edward Hicks in his many "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings.

If Zeldis mingles real history and idealized situations, other artists go right to paradise. An untitled 1985 acrylic painting by Joseph Parker presents a mansion set amid a lushly pastoral landscape. The bright palette of pink, yellow, green, and purple turns to festive advantage colors that some of the more apocalyptic-minded artists used in angry ways. God doesn't make a personal appearance in this painting but presumably infuses the natural kingdom depicted.

For more direct references to the divine, check out the 70 paintings and sculptures installed together in Howard Finster's "Peace Environment." Finster paints words as much as images. Hence, a shoe-shaped wood-panel painting bears slogans including if a shoe fits, then wear it. There's also a real telephone on which Finster has painted the words call jesus and make it right. Depending on the condition of your soul, that will be either a local or a long-distance call.

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