Paint It Black

Absence/Presence searches for the aesthetics of genocide; Thomas Hart Benton hits the road

If you've ever visited any of the Holocaust memorial museums of Eastern Europe, you perhaps know the intensity of witnessing a creative act undertaken in the midst of despair. There is a terrible poignancy to the small rendering of Jesus scratched on the wall of a tiny holding cell by a nameless prisoner at Auschwitz and to the pencil and crayon drawings scribbled by the child inmates of Theresienstadt in Prague.

Katherine Nash Gallery's elaborate exhibition, Absence/Presence: The Artistic Memory of Holocaust and Genocide, has collected pieces that are calculated to have a similar effect. According to the show's curator, Dr. Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, the exhibition was organized to examine questions of how art can convey the memory and aesthetics of genocide. Yet, as the ethnically diverse group of 19 artists included in this show is at least one generation removed from the genocides they represent, and as we are looking at their artworks in an urban art gallery and not an Eastern European concentration camp, it is easy for a viewer to lose sight of the show's intent. We can more easily focus on how these artists use the touch of their hand in making personal artistic statements than how closely their works represent or comment on genocide.

In Robert Barsamian's installation, "Road to Aleppo," for example, the horrors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 are depicted through an ugly, childlike body resting on a funeral pyre in the center of the gallery. While this central image is shocking, the surrounding walls are filled with ghostlike images of wolves and children rendered crudely in charcoal on old-fashioned lacy cloth. As these images seem personal to the artist, and thus are more compelling, we want to know more about the artist who made them.

An Armenian American by ancestry, Barsamian focuses on the personal elements of the Armenian tragedy, which he's perhaps dealt with in his own family. Similarly, for many of these artists, a personal connection to genocide is a central concern of their work. They make gestural marks, write personal words into their images, and on the whole present their work in a rather unrefined, emotive state. Judith Liberman's quilts, for instance, are rough-hewn. Intended to honor the groups--including Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals--who lost their lives in the Holocaust, the quilts' crude stitchwork, awkward forms, and garish colors seemingly speak more to the artist's feelings of anguish than the experience of the victims. Even though we are asked to do so by the curator, it is too much of a stretch to judge the impact of these works against that of a Holocaust memorial such as Auschwitz.

Some artworks in the show may well speak to us in this time and place. Two American Indian artists from Minnesota, Edgar Heap of Birds and Francis Yellow, create pieces that point to a local tragedy we often overlook. Heap of Birds' large installation, "Building Minnesota," is a massive collection of roadside signs that memorializes the massacre of his ancestors in Mankato in 1862. Yellow's drawings on canvas, furthermore, ridicule larger cultural stereotypes of Native people, placing a smiling Cleveland Indians head on a fierce warrior's body. That such work should feel so direct says something about our own feelings of guilt and uneasiness with regard to a genocide that is closer to home.

 

More concerned with the complexion of the country than the shades of his psyche, Thomas Hart Benton occupies the end of the spectrum opposite from genocide- and Holocaust-related art. As evidenced in the current exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, On the Road with Thomas Hart Benton, this artist's work is much more idiosyncratic and empathetic than some critics would have it.

One of our most "American" artists, Benton was born to a well-connected family in the Missouri of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. His paintings and lithographs exemplified a kind of golly-gee patriotism and optimism that some critics thought of as propaganda rather than as material for art galleries. An inveterate populist, a critic, and a founder of the American Regionalist movement, Thomas Hart Benton was well-known by the general public of the 1930s and holds the distinction of being the first artist to appear on the cover of Timemagazine in 1934.

The centerpiece painting from On the Road, titled "Sheepherder" (1955-1960), shows Benton at his best and worst. Though beautifully rendered, this image seems straight from a Hollywood Western: The glowing purple mountains and fields of waving grain, the lone figure on horseback, and the contented sheep are almost of another world, and we are kept at a distance from the subject of the painting by virtue of its extreme detail. In general, Benton was recognized for depicting visions of the American countryside and cityscape in vibrant primary colors. He was also somewhat vilified during the heyday of the abstract expressionist movement for his stylistic predilections. As the avant-garde saw it, Benton's draftsmanship and stylized forms lacked the evocative qualities of such artists as Jackson Pollock, and his paintings were often compared to classic barroom paintings on velvet.

Eventually, Benton became so fed up with the New York art scene of the time that he moved to Kansas City in the 1930s; in that decade, he began to travel, painting what he saw, until his death in the 1970s. Most of the work in On the Road was created during the later years of Benton's career and is not as familiar as his early large, heroic murals and paintings. Assembled from the artist's estate by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., the exhibit shows that Benton was a consummate observer in his travels, and perhaps one of the great documentarians of this century. At a time when every individual began to have access to cameras, and artists were tossing the idea of representation out the proverbial window, Benton recorded images of American life in all its splendor and squalor.

In "Sugar Cane" (1943), for instance, Benton depicts in oil-on-canvas the toil of workers as they dance and cut through the towering, sun-baked canebrakes of Florida. No figure, indeed no single stalk of cane, is static in the image, and we can sense the artist's familiarity with the heat of the labor. Meanwhile, across the gallery in "Chain Gang" (no date), Benton depicts a glum image of ragged prisoners in the South as they strain to work under the watchful eyes of ominous, shotgun-wielding guards. His use of an ice-cold color palette of gray, steel blue, and red ochre, gives the scene a foreboding quality--proof that Benton could capture emotion when he chose to.

True to himself in style and vision, Thomas Hart Benton did not shy away from the heavy issues of his time. He recorded Midwest flood victims and poor rural African-American workers of the South alongside the wide-open ranges and purple mountains' majesty. In the end, we might well agree with his claim that in his art he aspired to show "the rush and energy and confusion of American life."

 

Absence/Presence runs at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota through February 25; (612) 624-6518.On the Road with Thomas Hart Benton runs at the Minnesota Museum of American Art through February 14; (651) 292-4380.

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