Friday, July 06, 2007

War Artist

Before television news items we are warned of potentially distressing scenes of violence, our capital cities evening newspaper tempts us to buy their latest issue with words on their leader sheet such as “shocking motorway crash–exclusive pictures” in the past week even one of my own local newspapers ran with the leader sheet headline of “savage dog chews mans testicles”. We the ‘general public’ try not to think too deeply about terrorists, paedophiles, illegal wars, dangerous dogs, racial violence, gang turf wars, crime rates, hit and runs, kidnaps and rapes, multi drug resistant bacteria and the numerous other everyday media preoccupations. The media is an outlet for the frustrations, worries and campaigns with which we lobby our political leaders, we ask for changes to government policy or to act on our behalf, opposite to this role these newsworthy stories of tragedy that batter our eyes from newspaper headlines or from the blood soaked imagery from war photographers or television cameramen and the stern narratives of newsreaders fuel our growing fear and alienation. All these news items combine and jumble to create a nebulous sense of this fear and alienation.

When we believe our political classes act against our best interests we protest, in the past many protested for nuclear disarmament under the banner of CND and in recent years our previous prime minister felt a huge public lack of support over his decision to go to war in Iraq. Mr Blair has left office but the protests continue, despite vacating his position of power he is still held responsible for the decisions he made.

Peter Kennard has been a constant between those two issues of protest and many other issues in between, his art and protest imagery have been produced for over three decades now and his influence on current day artists has been vast. Photomontage, protest imagery and street art in Britain is created in the shadow of Kennard, all artists who touch the artistic territory of political comment or satire follow directly or indirectly from Kennard’s legacy. Working collaboratively with Cat Picton Phillips Kennard’s latest exhibition of prints and sculptures at the Leonard Street Gallery is called ‘Blairaq’ and focuses on the tragedies of the war in Iraq and coincides with Tony Blair’s last days in office and subsequent hand over to Gordon Brown, perhaps the campaigning Kennard and Picton Phillips are sending a message to the outgoing prime minister that we will not forget his decision to take the country to war just because his face will fade from our newspaper pages and television screens.

It is clear that for Kennard and Picton Phillips the Iraqi people caught up in the conflict who are suffering the violence and loss of life are suffering from the decisions of the US president and British Prime Minister. Two huge prints show the faces of both men, enlarged to a huge scale their eyes are there to be looked into and questioned, printed onto the multiple pieced together pages of newsprint the everyday news coagulates into a mass of information jumbled and spread with images of the political leaders and the smaller images of bloodied bodies and anguished faces. In one print the multiple overlaid sheets of newsprint create a thick base for the scenes printed on top but amongst this surface layer are torn, shredded and folded back layers which reveal more scenes of bloody and violent death and destruction.
The most powerful image is of a soldier kicking in a doorway, further back behind this image of armed might are the misty images of veiled and shrouded figures, the armed, powerful presence of the soldier is in stark contrast to the hunched and powerless small figures adjacent. These are simple metaphors but the pain, violence and suffering are clear and simple too, we cannot hide from such visceral imagery and action.
Somewhere in the foggy mass of printed media, overlaid images, paper, paint and print Kennard and Picton Phillips have created a dirty, bloody, messy collage of protest campaign, political spin, propaganda and news media shockery. Amidst this combined media jumble Kennard and Picton Phillips are powerful modern war artists depicting the tragedy of a dirty, messy, bloody war, the war is unfolding in shocking detail from the pages of our newspapers, the screens of our televisions and from the mouths of our politicians. At one and the same time they are questioning the validity of the decision to go to war and the motives for doing so and creating a strong collection of shocking imagery to remind us of the tragic violence and suffering of those who bear the consequences of that decision. Alienated from the decisions of our political leaders and fearful of the consequences of those decisions they show us a clearer view of the war.

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