The Politics of War
This show of political art by Robert Levers and Chris Reno is as timely as it gets
Reviewed by Rachel Koper, Fri., Sept. 19, 2008
'The Politics of War'
through Nov. 4
Artists mollify their fears with their creative processes. They attach pictorial references to things that threaten their peace of mind, their pursuit of happiness. Things that upset an artist's sense of safety and security must be studied and understood on an internal level. Maybe artists are the canaries in the coal mines; they help us all process and articulate cultural reactions to things such as war. Flatbed Press has created a timely exhibit of etchings, lithographs, Conté drawings, and gouache and acrylic paintings by Chris Reno and the late Robert Levers called "The Politics of War." To open an art show on 9/11 and close it on election night with a viewing party gets directly to the point of addressing fears – right off the bat, well done.
This is a large and varied show, with works by Levers that date from 1969 through 1991, addressing Vietnam and the Gulf wars, and works by Reno that were made from 2004 through 2008 and address the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's fascinating to see the prescience in Levers' work. In several of his soft-ground etchings, various terrorists are leaping barefoot, as if over hot coals. In works such as Doin' the Terrorist Strut Again (1988) and Terrorist Juggling Plates (1990), a soldier and a captive enact grim dramas. The fact that this art about torture predates Abu Ghraib and other recent events is one aspect of the show that will keep you reading the dates on all the cards. Some imagery involves skeletal forms dancing or talking with soldiers; some is vigorously abstract. Levers' excellent group of works on paper is a great legacy. Katherine Brimberry said Flatbed had received the works on paper from the Moody Gallery in Houston from the artist's estate. They decided that with the upcoming elections, now would be a good time to show them, and I agree.
Chris Reno is currently working in Iowa after living in Austin. Here, he displays some fine hatching textures in portraits of people such as Bush (titled Lebanon 2), Cheney (titled Our Pal), and Rumsfeld (titled WTF). These characters mix with Colin Powell and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These are all timely portraits of powerful men. Reno also has a series of paintings that are very well-made. They have a Works Progress Administration-mural vibe with a little Diego Rivera and a little Georges Braque mixed in. But they are small, densely personal paintings. I think my favorite is Red Snapper, in which young men dressed in rather Western-looking sportswear are helping dig a man out from the rubble of a wall. The rhythm of the debris is so well accomplished that at first you don't notice the odd fish in the rocks. Peculiar Species, which shows a police training yard, is quite stark and a striking piece. I like that this show isn't exclusively prints; it's just a big, lush mix of works and opinions.
This show will end on election night but will give you something to think about any day of the week. To temper a state of violence is to lessen its emotional intensity. Consider the time lapsed between The Art of War by Sun Tzu, sixth century BC China, and The Art of War by Niccolò Machiavelli, 16th century Italy. Both remind us that violence is part of our heritage and future, and as humans we must cope. These ancient books and this contemporary art show remind us of another commonality: the urgent desire to civilize barbaric acts.