September 21, 2005

Leon Golub: Prophetic Art



I saw this painting, Interrogation II (1981), in person on a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. It's a very large painting (120 X 168") on unstretched canvas. It just sort of hangs there on the wall, without a frame. It's definitely one of the most overwhelming paintings I've seen in person. Based on this experience, I can't imagine what it must feel like to see Picasso's Guernica.

The painting is part of a series of that Golub executed in the late seventies/early eighties in response to the revealation of atrocities during the Vietnam war and events in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Along with another powerful series--ironically titled "Horsing Around"--"Interrogation" calls attention to the prevalence of sadistic behavior among soldiers, no matter the war and how the behavior, for the most part, goes unpunished. Ultimately, the paintings are illustrations of how masculinity and cruelty become elided.

The paintings are very interesting their two-dimensionality. The figures all occupy the same ground--no one figure is more prominent that the others, like a snapshot. In fact, if you notice, the men seem to "horsing around" for the audience, smiling, making gestures toward the hooded prisoner; it makes it hard to resist comparisons to the Abu Ghraib photographs.

I'm still trying to find a way of working Golub into my book. He's such an interesting figure, but I'm already giving space to Francis Bacon, the troubled Irish-born painter whose paintings are no less violent, but definitely more abstract.

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