The faces of violence
Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 10:40 p.m.
IF YOU GO: The Culture of Violence
Exhibit opens Tuesday at the Harn.
All events held at the Harn Museum of Art.
Called "Irresistible," the Sue Williams sculpture isn't quite 5 feet long, but the work speaks volumes about domestic abuse. More striking than the bruises are the insults - crudely scrawled excuses - so familiar to troubled families: "Look what you made me do," screams one written on her right arm. "I think you like it," reads another.
"Irresistible" is tucked in an eerie corner of the Harn Museum of Art's latest exhibition, and viewers are forced to look down upon this scuffed woman.
"It puts you in the real uneasy position of where the perpetrator would have stood," said Kerry Oliver-Smith, the Harn's curator of contemporary art. "And it puts you in the position of what are you going to do about it."
Indeed, Oliver-Smith hopes many will ask themselves that very question as they stroll through the always-disturbing, sometimes-beautiful "Culture of Violence" exhibit, which opens Tuesday for a three-month run. A traveling exhibit on its third and final stop, "Culture of Violence" begs for attention, discussion and compassion.
This is a multi-media barrage from 25 artists - including Andy Warhol - that relies on repetition, audio, video and common pop-culture images to suggest America has grown dangerously too complacent with violence. And the display is designed to make the public uncomfortable with that relationship and, perhaps, inspire different thinking.
"It provides a contemplative space," Oliver-Smith said recently from the gallery. "Do we accept society being like this? I hope there is a defiant aspect of (the exhibit), but at the same time, it should be life-affirming - creation out of destruction."
In that respect, the exhibit has already been a community coup for the Harn. Some of the images - especially a Sue Coe painting depicting a gang rape - are harsh and graphic. But instead of offending or upsetting visitors, the Harn wanted the exhibit to be a forum for community discussion and self-analysis.
"One of the very first things the museum did when planning for the exhibition was to reach out to the community by inviting leaders from various agencies to come and give us their input and feedback on how we could best present the exhibition and support the community," noted Kimberly Rhoden, the Harn's director of marketing.
The result will be a series of lectures held within the exhibit's run, as well as brochures at the museum to guide victims of violence to local help agencies.
Still, the nature of the exhibit prompted the Harn to tuck the exhibit away from the museum's primary traffic flow. There are two entrances to the gallery, and one is guarded by the exhibit's signature image - a young Robert De Niro aiming his gun.
Painted by Jane Kaplowitz, "Taxi Driver No. 1" is a fitting gateway into the "Culture of Violence." It depicts De Niro honing his tough-guy edge: "You talkin' to me?" It is a classic moment from American cinema, the turning point when the character has had enough and embraces the vigilante justice America loves to celebrate.
"The American hero," Oliver-Smith said, looking at De Niro. "A man with his gun."
The image also served as an effective signature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where the "Culture of Violence" exhibit premiered in early 2002.
"It's so recognizable," said Betsy Siersma, director of the University Gallery at Amherst. "(De Niro) looks so self-satisfied . . . We accept it as entertainment."
"It's romanticized," Oliver-Smith added, walking into the gallery. "Right from the start, it's a glorification."
Beyond De Niro's steely gaze, Oliver-Smith has mapped the exhibit into themes. The nearby section on hate crimes, for example, includes a curious - and gorgeous - oriental fan. On closer inspection, the fan's wooden frame is a baseball bat; the work honors the 1982 death of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death with a bat by white, out-of-work auto workers. The Japanese sun on the fan is painted with the artist's own blood.
Across from "Fan Club" are nine images of police officers attacking Rodney King in 1992. Taken from the famous videotape, all nine images are the same, allowing artist Daniel Tisdale to suggest the media exploited the video and incident, which eventually led to the fiery Los Angeles riots.
At the center of the gallery is perhaps the exhibit's most haunting offering. "Shroud: Mothers' Voices" is a memorial for victims of gun violence in New Haven, Conn. White shrouds dangle, bearing the names of the victims and pictures of their mothers. As visitors are engulfed in the flowing veils, the mothers offer their stories on a nearby video monitor, turning statistics into stories of real humans.
"You see a community in mourning," Siersma recalled of the shrouds. "It was so intimate. You had to brush right through them."
Such subtle beauty transcends into other elements in the collection. Oliver-Smith noted the collection of scenic color photographs lining one wall at the Harn. They are serene and artsy with brilliant uses of light. Many look like the lush landscapes that sell so well at local art shows.
But, in fact, they are crime scenes photographed after the yellow tape was cleared.
"When you use beauty like that, I think it shows power," Oliver-Smith said.
Around the corner and through the "Domestic Violence" section is another series of photographs that demand a closer look. Lucinda Devlin's colorful photos detail the art of death chambers in a corner on Government-Sanctioned Executions. Surrounding the electric chairs, straps and gurneys are state-of-the-art equipment and cozy viewing chambers. It's all very clinical, noted Oliver-Smith, fascinated by the juxtaposition.
Many works in this exhibit - like the photos - require some time to fully digest. Some of the guns, for example, are cast from children's toys, while the "Hey Joe" installation leaves visitors in a barren room with swirling searchlights to ponder a Jimi Hendrix lyric: "Hey Joe, where are you going with that gun in your hand?"
"Rather than provoke, they make you work a little bit," Siersma said.
The exhibit has been booked at the Harn for about two years. Oliver-Smith said she thought the display would be a good fit for the Harn because it is a university museum in a university community. "It fit well with our educational mission," she said.
After leaving Amherst, the exhibit spent about three months at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, before heading to Gainesville.
Organizers assembled the works months before Sept. 11, 2001, but the exhibit took on an eerie new relevance after the attacks, especially the section on terrorism.
While a bit sobering, the exhibit was assembled to reshape perceptions and, possibly, spark solutions, curators contend. When it premiered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last year, many visitors left positive messages in the guest book, and the run enjoyed a substantial word-of-mouth following, Siersma said.
"Most of the guests thanked us for opening their eyes," she said.
Still, this is a powerful display that packs an emotional punch, especially, Siersma said, when it is stationed outside your office door for months.
"It was a burden," she admitted. "Frankly, I was glad to see it come down."
Dave Schlenker can be reached at 374-5045 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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