Their orderly arrangement reminds me of a military museum.
A grid of maps in two horizontal rows line the walls of the John Hope Franklin Center Gallery. But where one might expect to find the slate blue-gray and flat green functionality of traditional maps, instead there is a kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic liveliness, as if a 1960s flower child skilled in the arts of batik and tie-dye had collaborated with a medieval manuscript illuminator.They’re drawings from a series called “Places the United States has Bombed,” and they’re included in Protesting Cartography, elin o’Hara slavick’s current show at Duke University. In depicting aerial views of U.S. bomb targets, the drawings ask the viewer to consider the consequences of activities so removed from the daily lives of most Americans. As slavick puts it, “They are first and foremost protest drawings.”
Her name should be familiar to Independent readers. A professor of art, prolific artist, committed activist and 2002 Indies Arts Award winner, slavick was the target of death threats last year after co-organizing a series of teach-ins at UNC protesting the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks on New York.
Up until recently, her art has involved photography, sculptural installation and textiles. In the Duke exhibit we see her first body of work utilizing drawing and painting. A part of what the artist believes will eventually be a series of over 100 images, the Franklin Center works are done in ink, watercolor, gouache and graphite. They testify to her emergence as an incredibly gifted painter and an amazing colorist. The sophistication of her politics and her research is matched by her use of media.
Although the drawings are derived from actual military documents, they avoid the practical aspects of maps to comment on their less obvious functions. As slavick points out in her exhibition statement, maps are about power. They serve to assist in navigating the unfamiliar territory of the other, as well as to demarcate one’s own territory. They symbolically represent spatial relationships, but in doing so they omit certain features and simplify or exaggerate others. Significantly, they generally leave out human beings.
Maps impose unnatural lines, or add political significance to existing markers like rivers and coastlines. They tell travelers where they may go, and where they may not go. They impose the language of power on land, by naming places and natural features in the language of those who control or desire to control the land.
These days, they also guide planes to bomb targets.
In slavick’s drawings symbols like crow’s feet, arrows, circles and grids are imposed on the surface of the earth. Without a key to explain their significance, the symbols become decorative. But labels that would identify places and features are replaced in this exhibition by texts accompanying each drawing–texts that provide information regarding the place depicted, the date of the event, casualty and military statistics, and the source of the information. Given context, the marks become ominous.
In “Assault on Iwo Jima, February, 1945,” graphite crow’s-foot marks, gleaming in the light like silver leaf, are scattered across the image. But the jewel-like preciousness of medieval illumination is absent. slavick’s pigments saturate the paper instead; there is a merging of medium and support, a bleeding between colors that differs from the way lapis lazuli blue and vermilion red are applied to vellum.
In “Korea,” swirling fields of paint bleed into each other in feathery wisps, the color deepening in pools where it has penetrated the paper. The intermixing of fields of colors, with pigments blending with water to create delicate rivulets, gives an indication of the artist’s hand holding back. slavic watches the effects of the substances she has mixed and applied to paper, as we watch, from a distance, the effects of bombs dropped far away. Unlike the precise color-inside-the-lines technique of exacting maps, there is a looser paint handling, reminiscent in some places of a kindergartner’s tempera painting, as in her “Nevada Test Site II.”
In “Firebombing of Dresden, Germany, February 13 and 14, 1945,” tiny, delicate multicolored curls of flame interlace. They are beautiful and decorative. They also represent a bird’s-eye view of the firestorm that devastated the city. Citing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the text accompanying this drawing informs the viewer that more than 100,000 people died in the bombing of Dresden.
But the dead are absent from slavick’s drawing. There is only the earth below, and oneself, the viewer, above. The images are not from the viewpoint of the victims. They show the destroyer’s perspective instead, from planes flying over the site, or planners, thousands of miles away, looking at satellite or surveillance images.
There is a sense of peace from such a distant view, a soaring freedom from the annihilation below.
At a time when news reports extol the great strides made in remote battle technology since the Gulf War, a consideration of what such warfare entails is timely. While such devices may preserve the lives of our own armed forces, they distance them and us from the lives and places that are destroyed. This distance buffers us from the effects of these acts.
slavick writes of her drawings, “I make them beautiful to seduce the viewer so that she will take a closer look, and read the accompanying information that explains the horror beneath the surface.” The drawings navigate this delicate balance, deploying the beauty of distance to draw the viewer into a greater knowledge of the destruction.
Based in part on aerial photographs of the bomb sites, they reference photography’s claim to reality with their careful accuracy and silvery tones. But perhaps more than a photograph could, the magnetism of the drawings absorbs the viewer’s eye, making the historical information more powerful. The loveliness of the drawings merges with the horror of the destruction they represent, leaving an indelible impression.
Rosemary Feit Covey is a highly accomplished wood engraver living in Alexandria, Va. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, she credits her disruptive immigration to the United States at a young age as the source of some of her dark scenes of childhood.
Her imagery combines sources as diverse as Edward Munch’s tortured symbolism and Egon Schiele’s intense expressionism with early children’s literature illustration. In places I was reminded of John R. Neil’s illustrations for the original L. Frank Baum Oz books, and Arthur Hughes’ work for George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.
Such imagery pervades the work in her Artspace show that closes this weekend. It suits her technique. Wood engraving, like the more familiar woodcut, involves drawing an image into a block of wood, and then cutting away the area of wood around the drawing, so that the lines of the drawing are left raised. These lines are inked and pressed against paper to create the final image.
In a woodcut, the image is made on the side of a piece of wood, where the grain is visible. With wood engraving, the wood block is upended, so that the very dense end grain of the wood becomes the work surface. The density of this part of the wood allows for much greater detail than the more familiar, and often blocky woodcut.
Using this technique, Covey achieves an astonishing range of gray tones. When you look at her prints, remember that each faint gray line is a tiny ridge of wood: The technique is extremely difficult to execute.
One of Covey’s strengths is that her imagery plays with her technique. The act of cutting into the wood emphasizes the vulnerability of flesh to either cutting or to disease. In other works, nails remind the viewer of the wood that is the image’s source. In her engravings, nails pin paper to a background, are pounded into bone, and even spill into the real world, as tiny nails hammered unevenly into a wooden frame.
Covey has done extensive work as an illustrator. At times the images seem like illustrations in need of a narrative. However, their enigmatic quality is usually more fascinating than frustrating. Her virtuosic command of technique is best utilized when her subject matter matches the intensity of her skill: When we come across an innocuous image like the collection of penguins in 1988’s “Tuxedo Junction” printed in her exhibition catalog, her skills seem wasted. But when the intensity of the emotional content matches her technique in the darker works, the effect is stunning.
“The Next Show,” for example, depicts a circus setting in which two topless women in tulle skirts face the viewer with tired, bored expressions while a leering man roughly embraces a third woman behind them. The print could be read as a fairy-tale interpretation of a scene from Susan Meiselas’ 1976 book of photographs, Carnival Strippers.
Since many of the subjects of Covey’s prints are children, the idea of fairy tales came up repeatedly while viewing the exhibition. One such print, “Ring Around the Rosie” (1997), deals in particular with the plagues that decimated the population of Europe repeatedly during the Middle Ages. The nursery rhyme of the title actually hides a history of death: Its first line refers to the telltale red mark with a ring around it that spelled doom for anyone who found it on her flesh.
In the print, a young girl with the face of a young woman, a sort of femme fatale child, sits with each hand on a silky black rat, a carrier of the plague. Covey is unafraid to look behind the sanitized tales at the darkness that accompanies childhood. Like other examples of her work, this image draws attention to our culture’s problematic insistence on the innocence of childhood.
Nor is Covey’s imagery confined to childhood. Her Porcupine Girl series draws on crucifixion images but substitutes a woman’s body for that of Christ. Huge quills springing from the woman’s own body replace the cross and nails. Impaled on the very quills that grow from her body, the Porcupine Girl experiences excruciating pain in one image. In another, her face expresses a delirious pleasure as her own body is pulled apart by the quills, her torso unlacing like a loosened corset. These images can be read as a macabre representation of cultural expectations of physical beauty, and women’s complicity with those expectations. They are also expressions of a deeply personal mythology, and testimony again to the vulnerability of the flesh.
Comments in the visitor’s book reflect some viewers’ discomfort with Covey’s material. I found her darkness intriguing, imbued with an emotional honesty that saves it from being bleak or dismal.
Some of elin o’Hara slavick’s Protesting Cartography images can be viewed at www.unc.edu/~eoslavic/index.html.
Rosemary Feit Covey’s works can also be seen at www.rosemaryfeitcovey.com.