February 24, 2009

A Fresh Look at a Politically Charged Country

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Considering the smorgasbord of violent photos from war zones that have been the keystone of coverage in Iraq lately, Chase Wilson’s exhibit in the Tjaden Experimental gallery, Coordinates, is a welcome change. Rather than the horrific sequences of torture that were shown prolifically in the media these past years, Wilson’s explorations of Iraq seem to provoke thought and question without heavy-handed imagery. Wilson ’12 is a freshman art major; his works, at first impression and further consideration, seem extremely mature and developed. Coordinates is a series of three paintings and one sculpture. The three paintings depict aerial views of various sites in Iraq: Baghdad, outside Al-Fallujah and Samarra. Each of these extremely rich and saturated paintings recall something other than just an aerial photograph. Wilson’s choice of color in the Baghdad suggests a wash of blood, though the space in reality may be a lake or a field; in the painting of Samarra, graphic symbols and letters seem to be formed by the shapes of the estuaries and vegetation. This interpretation of Iraqi landscapes suggests a myriad of things. Wilson’s paintings intimate that we are looking at the land — Iraq, nonetheless — from a godlike perspective. Figures become simply moving shapes and colorful patterns, rather than actual humans with interests, families and lives. These beautifully rich paintings offer the viewer an excuse for critical distance: rather than being confronted with the actualities of war zones, we are lured by figure and saturation. Yet in many ways, this effect of Wilson’s paintings (their lapse from figurative work to abstraction) made me much more self-concious of my critical distancing than gory media images, which frequently tend to pass me by because of desensitaization.
In the center of the room is a large box, about the same scale as the paintings — nearly 6’ x 6’ — filled with sand. The sand itself is not arranged or drawn on, but perfectly leveled to a sheer flat plane. This sculpture allows the viewer to question the scale of the paintings on the walls. It suggests that we inhabit a sort of “aerial” perspective every day — only to human scale, grains of sand and patterns in the dirt can be as poignant and significant as the patterns of agriculture or cityscape. The fragility of the sculpture — the sand is easily disrupted and not adhered to its container in any way — echoes issues of personal responibility that arise from the paintings. It is easy, these works seem to say, to disturb something when you’re far away and not very much involved.
However, at the gallery talk of his work, Wilson underscored the fact that he was not making a political statement with these works. When asked why he didn’t choose a more neutral place in the world to paint, Wilson said that as Iraq is highly charged, his works provoke viewers to spend more time questioning the meanings and consequences of his painting. In this he was successful — when ones realizes they are of a war zone, the paintings instantly begin to take on different meanings and connotations: e.g., the swath of red in the Baghdad aerial reads like blood rather than something more neutral. However, many artists have proposed the idea that all art is political. His intentions aside, it cannot be denied that Wilson’s paintings are highly provocative: their ability to suggest themes such as perspective, voyeurism, objectivity and our own responibility give them as much, if not more, weight than the gory photos of car-bombings.

Coordinates will be running from Feb. 23 – 27 in the Tjaden Experimental gallery in Tjaden Hall. The closing reception is at 6 p.m. on Feb. 27.