Sunday, 3 January 2010

Leon Golub
Interrogation II 1981
Acrylic on Linen 305 x 426 cm
Irish Museum of Modern Art
19 September 2000

This was an immense exhibition of over 80 piaintings by this American artist and the first time I had seen his work first hand or in reproductions.

Totally unprepared, the shock of seeing so many of these larger than life scale paintings of oppression and cruelty was palpable. Golub's massive unframed canvasses depict scenes of mercenary killings, torture, and death squads. The show made me feel uncomfortable long after I had left and I could have chosen many individual works to write about, but this one stuck in my mind.

Like the other 38 large scale works it is on unframed but primed canvas that like sailcloth has had large eyelets attached to allow the work to be stretched. He works from an image bank of collected newspaper and magazine clippings and photographs of various body types, violent acts, and weapons. Then using these photographs as models, he draws directly onto the large canvas and then applies layer upon layer of paint, scraping back and reworking the surface in the process. The result is an expressionist surface where the figures, although unified by the process, lack any modelling making them as flat as the space they occupy.

The interrogators of the title are not specifically located, but through the device of flattening the image plane with the red oxide ground and cropping the legs, a continuity of space is suggested between them and you, the viewer. This breakdown of the gap, the enlargement of the protagonists and the direct eye contact they make suggests not only their power, but also makes you feel involved and complicit.

This ability to take the viewer into areas restricted from the public gaze took a dramatic shift with the images of torture that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2004, making Golub’s images of Mercenaries posing for the viewer/camera seem prescient. However, this need to expose the suppression of similar kinds of torture by the state is not new in art and Goya’s Disasters of War series of etchings from 1808-20 are clearly an influence on Golub’s work as might be Max Beckmann’s 1919 painting The Night.

Unlike those works and despite a process that implies loss (the painting and scraping back of the image, eroding and reconstructing the image) I don’t find the image melancholic. Is this something to do with the denial of the victim’s identity? Perhaps the victim as a sacrifice allows him to become a scapegoat and we fail to identify with his suffering.

These are not images to be seen in a book, as the predominant aura comes from the power of the mercenaries and their invasion of the viewer’s space and the work requires the audience's participation to make it complete. Consequently, whilst we may deplore the torture, part of us is relieved that it’s not us under the hood, and the knowing looks of the men drive home our complicity in the almost pornographic action. Maybe that’s the inherent sadness of the image, not man’s inhumanity to man, but the fact that like hard core pornography it is supposedly done for our benefit?

©blackdog 2009

1 comment:

  1. Wie soll ich ein Bild betrachten,
    bei dem ich am liebsten die Augen verschließen möchte,
    nicht so wie der eine, dem die Augen verschlossen wurden,
    blindlings ausgeliefert nun der Folter und Tyrannei
    dieser vier Männer, in deren lachende, gleichgültige, coole Visagen ich eine reinhauen möchte....
    oh nein, ich will nicht aggressiv werden, nur Zeitzeuge sein
    und mitempfinden mit diesem einen, der nichts sehen kann, aber alles fühlt und leidet.
    Sind es nur Männer, die so grausam sind?

    Your description and interpretation of this painting whose violence and torture I hardly can look at is informative and very sensitive! The last thought ("pornography...benefit") sounds strange to me! In any case- "man's inhumanity to man"- and we are often spectators and audience, indeed, unable and unready to help and to prevent!