“Qué Hay Que Hacer Mas?”: Reflections on “The Disasters of War” at Peter Blum SoHo




I’m hard-pressed to remember the last time I found a thank you note from a President Elect presidential candidate in a gallery exhibition’s press file. But there it was, at Peter Blum SoHo, sandwiched between praise from the New York Times and the Village Voice, a letter from Barack applauding Peter for the timeliness of his gallery’s current exhibition: Francisco de Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) print series.

Goya (1746-1828) made these etchings circa 1810-1820 in response to Spain’s War of Independence against Napoleon’s armies (1808-1814). Filtering traditions of history painting through caricature, irony and emotional immediacy, this complete set of eighty prints (first published in 1906) retains its power to conjure the visceral horror and inhumanities of war. Physical atrocity is expressed in Great Deeds! With Dead Men! where the dead weight of the central figure pulls against the ropes that bind his naked body to a barren tree, which is decorated by the body parts of his comrades; equally disturbing, in I saw it, is the terror on the faces of the father and child who look at something beyond the picture frame—rather than revealing the it, Goya uses these facial expressions to give license to our darker imaginings. Throughout the series, the aftermath of war is shown in desiccated landscapes where vultures pick at corpses.

Matching the arresting content of these prints is their compositional ingenuity: in They Do Not Agree, nearly half the plate was left unetched; the chaotic foreground gives way to the background via a single face that fades from dense to sparer hatchmarks and eventually to a blank page—a formal operation pulverizes a figure into thin air. 200 years after it was created, this work remains formally, psychologically and, unfortunately, thematically relevant.

It’s generous of Peter Blum to show us The Disasters of War while probably dispensing with a summer’s worth of exhibition-generated gallery income. And judging from Obama’s thanks to him for “the countless ways you’ve supported our campaign,” this is not all he’s doing for the Democratic Party.

Still, standing in this white box in SoHo, the surprise of flipping from the familiar layout of the New Yorker’s art listings to Barack’s official red, white and blue letterhead made me wonder what it could really mean if the contemporary artworld “took action.” So a thought experiment: what if the exhibition were revised from Goya’s Disasters of War to OUR Disasters of War and instead of the 80 prints wrapping around the elegant gallery space, a sign in its window that read: “Peter Blum SoHo is closed through November while its staff works for the Obama campaign wherever Barack needs us.” (Imagining this on a large scale serves up the appealing image of the rural south being flooded by New York gallerina/gallerino transplants working for the future of our country.)

A similar idea was posed by the artist Mary Kelly when she suggested to Connie Butler, curator of the recent exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, that the exhibition consist not of objects, but of participatory consciousness raising sessions about the issue of feminism.

I was inspired by seeing both The Disasters of War and WACK!, but with a whole host of upcoming shows on theme of Democracy in honor of the election season (previews to come), I think it’s worth considering what contemporary art and its artworld can and can’t do to effect Change We Can Believe In.

Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) is on view at Peter Blum SoHo, 99 Wooster Street until August 1 and will reopen August 26-September 1.

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