April 21–May 26, 2006
Enthralled with the buzz of “visual culture,” much contemporary political painting seems to emanate from either the bully pulpit of mass media or the tedious podium of postmodernism. Whether these types of painting are interesting as Painting somehow seems immaterial to public discussion. “Este Mundo,” Irving Petlin’s current exhibition at Kent Gallery reminds us that there are many other visual languages up to the task of addressing global politics. Often cited for his extended dialogue with the work of Odilon Redon, James Ensor and Francis Bacon, Petlin has mastered the suggestive temperament of paint to produce paintings that both delight and disturb. While Petlin’s activist credentials go way back (he created the original Peace Tower with Mark di Suvero in 1966 as well as the famous poster of the My Lai massacre, which he never signed or, at the time, took credit for), his politics look decidedly poetic, literary and European when compared to the other image-based political artists who came to prominence during the 1970s, namely Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, and May Stevens, to cite but a few.
Paying homage to James Ensor’s masterwork, Petlin’s “The Entry of Christ into Washington” is the centerpiece of his current exhibition. The artist’s trademark striated composition slices the picture into four horizontal bands that stretch across the entire width of the 12-foot triptych. Inscribed with the locations of recent Bush incursions (Fallujah, Florida, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo), placards, flags and banners bob and flutter in the foreground amidst a seething crowd that includes feral dogs, cowboys, KKK, Arab princes, soldiers, skeletons, Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. A dense throng of ghostly human forms spreads out across the vast center of the canvas, reminiscent of the great military processionals of Sienese painting. Flanked by the white domes of the U.S. Capitol and the Jefferson Memorial, the graphic outlines of oil derricks press up against long slice of land and finally a blue-black sky.
Unlike the brutal scrapings of Golub, Petlin treats his unprimed surfaces with a loving hand, teasing out a variety of evocative marks, drips and stains from the paint. The lazy binary of abstraction vs. representation often used to describe art collapses in the presence of this work. White flares of a dragged brush light up the atmosphere. A pair of flat, black and white vertical stripes becomes a recurrent ideogram for the Twin Towers. In “Tigres/Euphrates…I,” fiery strokes of pure ultramarine, cadmium yellows, oranges and alizarin crimson lick the bottom edge of the picture, gathering intensity against the color and nap of the linen. “Infantry (Homage to Leon Golub)” shows a stony figure looking down upon a radiant abstract firefight worthy of the Gods.
Although most of the pictures in Este Mundo clearly refer to current global events, the emotional tenor of the exhibition is derived from Petlin’s own long meditation on history. This feeling appears most strongly in the group of drawings and pastels that round out the show. In three elegant line drawings depicting the faces of young soldiers, the enduring necessities of war are disrupted by the random, eccentric scratchings of an angry hand. The pastels venture even further into a symbolic past, where simple forms accrue broad, dreamy significance. Inspired by Michael Palmer’s poem of the same name, Irving Petlin’s Este Mundo links all the pain and beauty of this world, our world, to all the worlds that have come before us.
Carrie Moyer is a Brooklyn-based painter.