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October 4, 2013

Stretch the Strangle Hold — Artists Against War

by Jim Welke

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Stretch the Strangle Hold - Artists Against War, on thru 5-October 2013 at 4731 Gallery (4731 Grand River) in Detroit begins with the following message of intent:

Inspired by my painting, Stretch the Strangle Hold, I sought out help to achieve the goal of bringing like-minded artists of all disciplines together to speak out against the lie of war. This group exhibit features many artists from around greater Detroit. Our goal for this show is to raise awareness at the local and national level to send a message that war is not the most effective solution.
- Joe Lovett, curator

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Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett

The show includes works in various media by Catherine Peet, Madeline Barkey, Victor Pytko, Eric Mesko, David Mikesell, Sergio De Giusti, Lynn Galbreath, Marilyn Zimmerwoman, Jon Parlangeli, David Fischer, Jeanne Bieri, Donald Mendelson, Linda Allen, and Joe Lovett.

When you enter the room, this show immediately feels big like a cathedral. You slip into an awestruck contemplative mood, with a constant edge of pissed off. At least this writer did. If you despise war and the people who conspire to incite it you will likely feel the same. Yet, none of the imagery or sculpture in this show are gut wrenchingly graphic. That fact explains the power this show harnesses. You feel pissed off because so much of the form and imagery looms there with astonishing familiarity. Seeing it here, in an art gallery, stops you dead in your tracks. You wonder why the hell we put up with it. Why do we allow such grotesque brutality? One answer might lie in a quote pasted up beside David Mikesell’s Living In Trenches:

“I have not washed for a week, or had my boots off for a fortnight. …It just serves my …barbaric disposition and I have never enjoyed anything so much.” — Captain Julian Grenfell, letter to parents, 1914. He died of wounds in 1915, age 27.

Blinded by Gas Attack (top) / Living in Trenches (bottom) / David Mikesell

Blinded by Gas Attack (top) / Living in Trenches (bottom) / David Mikesell

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Walking Wounded / David Mikesell

There are those who greet war eagerly, who commit barbarity blithely, who relish the adrenalin buzz of combat. If you doubt, read some first hand accounts of war. Many more quotes like the one above linger like the smell of dog shit in our collective consciousness. And then there are those ostensible leaders who send others — reluctant participants — to war with the anticipation of glory and riches. To the instigators go glory and riches. Warriors get scant recompense. Most reluctant warriors bear scars from wounds they rarely mention. And their reticence to speak of nightmarish experiences impoverishes civilians. We should hear more from former warriors; they constitute the majority, and with sobering consistency advise avoidance of war.

Flower Gun Power / Linda Allen

Flower Gun Power / Linda Allen

But if we heard from them, would we heed them? The argument to urge us into war always comes down to “us against them” — hollow patriotism rallied by profiteering demagogues. You’re either with us, or you’re against us. You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them. You either defend our sacred national honor and fragile borders, or you tear both down and let the pagan hordes descend on our women and children, rape and enslave our tender innocents. Yet in the end, after the smoke clears — the infamous fog of war that obscures the barbarity — we discover it was about somebody else’s money and power; somebody other than the warriors compelled to fight; somebody other than the families compelled to consign their flesh and blood to horrible, needless death; somebody other than the citizens compelled to commit their treasure.

Same Story Same Game / Catherine Peet

Same Story Same Game / Catherine Peet

Story Teller / Catherine Peet

Story Teller / Catherine Peet

Here’s the original quote by Edmund Burke, the one apparently so often misquoted:

No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

 

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko (detail)

The Dove of Peace / Eric Mesko (detail)

You’ll find at 4731 a phalanx of artwork combined against warwork: paintings, sculpture, photographs, mixed-media. Several pieces incorporate squadrons of those little plastic “army men” and other “toys” we drop into the hands of our children as prelude to merciless shredding of their innocence. Some works show scenes from our infamous past, matter-of-factly presented with that aforementioned unsettling sense of familiarity: Mr. Mikesell’s meticulously rendered World War One scenes, not frenetic battles but the walking wounded, men blinded by gas, in a line gripping the shoulder of the man in front as guide; or the inside of trenches where soldiers slept — all presented in soft hues and precise brushstrokes that remind one of Norman Rockwell’s gentle scenes of American domestic tranquility, except these show us horrors we never should have witnessed; and Jeanne Bieri, with a series of black and white photos, bleached from age. In one, a child wears a gas mask as a taller sister, outfitted with similar military fixtures stands aside, cut off at the shoulders as though ascending from the scene, leaving the child to suffocate alone in well-intentioned but likely ill-fitted, ineffective protective armor.

Hawaiian Child in a Gas Mask / Jeanne Bieri

Hawaiian Child in a Gas Mask / Jeanne Bieri

After Trayvon / Marilyn Zimmerwoman

After Trayvon / Marilyn Zimmerwoman

Other artists offer war imagery transposed as surreal pageantry; the familiar rendered strange, like David Fischer’s After the Bomb, an eerie glass bomb shell with grass growing inside. Marilyn Zimmerwoman offers “Time” magazine covers with Trayvon Martin’s empty hoodie superimposed over cryptic, mirrored text (“We spend a lot of time / On a few great things. / Until every idea we touch / Enhances each life it touches.”); or China’s imperial ascendance — “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CHINA”; and a luxe wristwatch and reclining leopard; ghostly figures holding reversed signs that read, “Aids is going to lose,” all rendered translucent and exposed to lucid scrutiny like x-ray films. Perhaps a bit off topic, but then again given the pressure of commerce, geopolitics, and the warped apartheid culture Americans inhabit, perhaps these scenes represent inevitable precursors to war, the signs and symbols that provoke it.

Girls / Madeleine Barkey

Girls / Madeleine Barkey

Madeleine Barkey gives us Girls and Boy: nude schematics of children with target circles on their heads and torsos. Eric Mesko’s Dove of Peace, a collage of war clippings, including a New York Times roster of dead soldiers fronted by a diaphanous skull on a colonial pillar wearing a helmet wrapped in barbed wire, topped by a duck that grips an olive branch in its beak (a send up of that American eagle vainly clutching the ubiquitous olive branch). Catherine Peet brings ghostly dioramas embellished with mysterious icons alongside the Statue of Liberty; or a skeletal, lute-playing jester encircled by those tiny, ubiquitous army men painted in garish colors; or the exotic bird, Horned Plundious with blood seeming to issue from its beak. Linda Allen shows a 19th or early 20th century battle scene painting where lush faux flowers and hearts spontaneously pop from the barrels of guns and between the lurching soldiers’ feet. Sergio De Giusti’s sculpture Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) shows hanging, shrouded corpses and men lugging more to the scene in a creepy, almost biblical bas-relief. Donald Mendelson’s Dogs at Work depicts a desert battle scene, pyramid in the background, with gas-mask clad soldiers led by a colossal dog and followed by can-can dancers. Jon Parlangeli’s The Draft shows a negative image of men marched off at gunpoint as colored shards of confetti descend around them.

Mad Men / Victor Pytko

Mad Men / Victor Pytko

Mad Men / Victor Pytko (detail)

Mad Men / Victor Pytko (detail)

And Victor Pytko’s Mad Men, an installation placed in the center of the main gallery forms the shape of a bomb — conventional ordinance perhaps, or maybe an incendiary device designed to engulf in flames beings and buildings alike, or it could represent the ultimate destructive invention, an atomic bomb. There it sits in the middle of the room, plastered over with diminutive, surging, leaping army men, toy guns and grenades, and doll heads, all painted over in flat black spray. On the flattened, square tail end, Mr. Pytko added a diaphanous painting of a man convulsed in terror or pain (face reminiscent of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner — that gruesome street execution in Saigon).

After the Bomb / David Fischer

After the Bomb / David Fischer

The Draft / Jon Parlangeli

The Draft / Jon Parlangeli

Soldier with Cat / Donald Mendelson

War With Peace / Jon Parlangeli

In abstract work by Donald Mendelson, Lynn Galbreath, Jon Parlangeli, and Joe Lovett toxic, gassy nebulae, and fracture figures in abrasive color or clinical grays ascend from canvases, sculpture, and mixed-media to assault our sleepy complacency. Joe Lovett’s eponymous Stretch the Strangle Hold suggests Picasso’s Guernica with nearly similar dimensions, gray tones, and tumbling images, but updated with modern war machinery and a shred of American flag painted in color. Overall, the scene feels less imbued with pure fury, but more of a diffuse, implacable sorrow. Yellow Brick Road, by Mr. Parlangeli, also suggests Guernica with cubist polygons, exaggerated features, and of course those bull horns, but Mr. Parlangeli used color to enforce the dramatic impact of the horrible human chaos he depicts with no shortage of pointless fury. Lynn Galbreath’s Hello Tokyo uses Godzilla, ensnared by a serpent, astride an all-terrain vehicle, and overrun by hordes of human attackers, painted in pallid green tones, and overlaid with block letters spelling out “FALSEHOODS, LIES, CONTRADICTIONS.” Indeed. It seems she presents an amalgam of propagandistic icons under assault here… or to another viewer something else, but clearly an indictment of human folly that ends with war.

The Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) / Sergio De Giusti

The Hanging Body Bags of Babylon (altarpiece) / Sergio De Giusti

Stretch the Strangle Hold - Artists Against War is timely and important, and populated with quality work well worth a look. Cheers to 4731 Gallery, the curator Joe Lovett, and the artists who used their prodigious talent to comment on a topic worthy of scathing commentary.

Drunk Tank Pink / Lynn Galbreath

Drunk Tank Pink / Lynn Galbreath

Just Ducky / Lynn Galbreath

Just Ducky / Lynn Galbreath

Hello Tokyo // Lynn Galbreath

Hello Tokyo / Lynn Galbreath

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson

Dogs At Work / Donald Mendelson (detail)

Yellow Brick Road / Jon Parlangeli

Yellow Brick Road / Jon Parlangeli

Jeanne Bieri

Jeanne Bieri

Boy / Madeleine Barkey

Boy / Madeleine Barkey

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

Stretch the Strangle Hold / Joe Lovett (detail)

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