I have been living with Bradley McCallum’s Inescapable Truths for the past two years. Recently this artwork left the home/studio he and I share in Brooklyn. Its absence has provided the necessary space for me to critically consider the afterlife of a journalist’s violent death and assess the form of aesthetic address that tells this tragic story.
McCallum’s overall practice is about preserving and honoring the memories of people or events in regards to past wrongs that remain unsettled and unsettling. His subjects are often ordinary people engaging in acts, large and small, of everyday heroism. He is known for illuminating the underlying issues and concerns through portraiture, painting, and installation art. He employs these forms to bring these histories into the present and, through his exhibitions and public installations, to an interested audience.
Inescapable Truths is a memorial artwork for James Foley, the conflict journalist whose daring work and tremendous moral courage is often overlooked in stories about his death at the hands of ISIS. Drawing on Foley’s video reportage, McCalllum has created a series of new images that conjure an ongoing critical relation between the past and the present. These symbolic works of art take the form of photo-realistic oil paintings and are a powerful form of redress for the public execution of James Foley and the monumental crimes of war.
In a political sense, the paintings assemble the fragmented afterlife of James Foley’s written and pictorial journalism and comments on American involvement in the wars in the Middle East and Libya. While the Trump administration is still celebrating the death of Qasem Soleimani—the Iranian military commander the president called “the number-one terrorist anywhere in the world”—violence, trauma, and chaos survives.
Each of McCallum’s paintings carries symbolic meanings. Guns are a reminder of violent death. Lamenting women represent grief and sorrow. Destroyed cities and empty landscapes stand for decomposition and loss. Similarly each painting is physically covered with a layer of silk that functions symbolically as a shroud; partially obscuring the painted image, partially transforming it, ultimately enveloping it like a burial garment.
Aesthetically the artworks are strangely, hauntingly beautiful. They spark a desire to sojourn a while with the images, sensing that each one offers something that is difficult to refuse, difficult to ignore. In this regard, the collection of works compel the viewer to experience their testimony. Without this aesthetic intervention, the paintings might lack force and simply read as interesting comments on a political moment. Instead, it is an evocation of a sense of vulnerability and beauty that is the enlivening force in this body of work.
The viewer becomes caught in a painting’s gaze—a gaze that works emotionally, psychologically, affectively. The paintings go beyond simply representing some aspect of a past event. They are imbued with vitality. They do things to us, often stimulating impassioned reactions, positive and negative. There is also something impenetrable about the paintings, protected as they are, by a shroud that subtly resists the viewer’s gaze. Still, one sees enough to know that there’s something important at stake.
The force and vitality of the works have less to do with the fact that one sees something in his paintings than with the fact that one is seen by his paintings. In this sense, McCallum’s pictures can be felt as singling the viewer out, implicating the viewer in the movement of its testimony to Foley’s experiences and to the people whose lives are caught in the conflict. The force of this testimony is felt as an encounter between the image and the viewer with indeterminate, yet potentially significant resonances.
Standing before these paintings, one sees that McCallum has simultaneously constructed an image and manifested an emotional experience—of violence and loss. It is a felt encounter that includes the various disruptive, often conflicting desires, that the images initiate. If the viewer pushes through the layers of McCallum’s paintings, Inescapable Truths has the quiet power to make one feel what it is like to live with loss and grief while also expressing the need for reciprocal compassion in the present. This transformation is where the gold lies.