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On Exhibit: artists' responses to a surreal war

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"If at an incurable distance from participation, hopelessly incapable of reactions adequate to the event, we watch men killing each other, we may be . . . profoundly degrading ourselves." So wrote James Agee in 1944, reviewing grisly newsreels of the Allies invading Iwo Jima. It's like viewing pornography, he proposed. Perhaps "we have no business seeing this sort of experience, . . . these terrible records of war."

From Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Chicago Tribune reporter Linnet Myers termed the gulf war "almost surrealistically bloodless"--thanks in part to Colonel Barry Stevens, who broke off a briefing when pressed for details about battle deaths. "I'm not here to discuss the pornography of war," he announced to reporters.

In the exhibition "War: A New Generation," a group of Chicago artists confronts the iconography of war. None were in the war zone, but all were overwhelmed by news of it. Instead of censored pool reports, they tender interpretations that may remedy the distance, react in some morally adequate way.

Artist Peter Barnes once got a stack of maps that his dad, a colonel in the Reserves, brought back from war college. First as a youngster, then as an artist, he put them to many uses. A military-school dropout, Barnes in this show spells out in block letters his antiwar sentiments. War of Words is a dense matrix of red ink stamped on a 1964 U.S. Army map of Iraq (which prophetically warns, in fine print: "The delineation of internal and administrative boundaries on this map must not be considered authoritative"). The artist implies that the moral terrain is hard to read when we are inundated with military detail.

Descent is a toothy, mangy, shrew-faced jet fighter plane sculpted by Larry Lundy. He dunked patches of his own hair in ink, then glued this ratty fur onto a diving, snarling war machine. High-tech weapon mutates into low-life rodent in this insult to the evolutionary process. In Running painter Jinna Welday takes a lethal icon from her TV screen--bomber cross hairs--and targets a fleeing figure, collapsing the usual impersonal distance between bomb dropper and bomb sufferer. Military censors only cleared snuff videos of buildings; bodies were never perceptible in the bombsights. High-altitude infrared cameras were insensitive to the thousand points of heat representing a thousand Iraqi souls.

One end product of the war pipeline is depicted by Dan Waters: a coffin lid made out of a wooden crate, Package for Mom is stenciled with the insignia used by freight handlers to indicate "this end up," "fragile contents," and "keep dry." In Bektel Damien Noll registers a clear-cut stand against the war: a fabric partition hanging away from the gallery wall is cut out to read "I Object."

This exhibit is the sixth put on by Art-O-Rama, a spunky gallery started less than two years ago by Joe Crosetto and Lynn True. They billed their first show as "artist-run, no jury, little or no taste." Another show was organized for photographers and artists who were regulars at the Old Town Ale House. A Christmas exhibit was billed: "30 really good artists . . . exploit the true meaning of the season." The latest announcement from "this humble little gnat of a gallery" promises that it will "grow until it's as big as a helicopter."

Occupying the site of a former German bakery, Art-O-Rama offers more on its premises than art for sale. The F-branch of the Ministry of Classification and Licensing is occasionally headquartered there. Efficiently staffed by performance artists Ro Annis and Doug Snook, this walk-in satire on bureaucracy evokes the movie Brazil and the short stories of Kafka and Borges. Two nimble and officious clerks wield an absurd arsenal of rubber stamps (e.g., "DUPE"), process Fact Form 40F-L33 dream license applications, and make inquiries on "the details of the monster truck you fantasize about most." Office posters command: "Stand for what you fall for / Fall for what you stand for."

On April Fools' Day, Art-O-Rama serves up a sideshow to its "War" exhibit. Aggression in a kinder and gentler vein will be unleashed by Heather McAdams, free-floating curator of goofy movies. In one bit of TV footage, Anita Bryant: Pie in Her Face, the antigay Scud of the 70s is hit with a gooey Patriot at a press conference. McAdams, a cartoonist and filmmaker, stars in Tom Palazzolo's Hey Girls, a how-to self-defense movie for women pestered by male motorists. Other titles include Hold Me While I'm Naked, by George Kuchar, and Who Do You Think You Are, by Mary Filippo.

On May 3 Andy Marko, a Loyola video teacher, will stage a performance with a war theme. Last Halloween he put on What Are You Afraid Of? at Art-O-Rama: using a wheelchair, he pushed audience members one at a time through a sequence of rooms of fear. For his upcoming piece he plans to address "the little acts of war in day-to-day life." It will be his chance to get through to the audience after he tried, unsuccessfully, to get through to CNN. One night during the gulf war, CNN polled viewers, asking: "When should we starve out the people of Iraq?" Marko kept phoning but says he never got his chance to "question the question."

"War: A New Generation" will be open through May 5 at 3039 W. Irving Park. Gallery hours are Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 PM; Sunday from noon to 5 PM; and other times by appointment. Gallery admission is free. April Fools' Day movies will screen April 1 at 8 PM; admission is $5. Marko's performance is Friday, May 3; admission is $4. Call 588-1876 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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