Matt Davis’ large Lambda print titled Trooper (2003) is a painterly composition depicting a fully outfitted combat trooper. Centrally located, the figure is repeated and enlarged several times creating a visual effect that communicated both physical and psychological intensity. Its collage appearance and faux painterly surface combined with a telescoping compositional device located it between Rauschenberg and psychedelia. Unsettling in its evocation of a detonating soldier, Davis’ trooper also echoed the political and military quagmire in Iraq.

The most iconic and literal piece in the exhibition was Jonathan Monk’s Deadman (2006) with its convincing nod to classical sculpture. This life-size figure of a young man was laid out on the floor in the middle of the gallery. Draped with a bloodstained sheet, the figure’s verisimilitude was uncanny, not because of its realism to death but due to its reference to art. The principled largeness of portraying a fallen war hero and Western art’s fictional depictions of Socrates and Marat come to mind before the political rhetoric of “These Stripes Don’t Run,” or “Support Our Troops.”

Walead Beshty’s photographs are culled from the abandoned Iraq embassy in Berlin that was vacated during the first Gulf War. These large-scale, chromogenic prints document the embassy’s interior disarray. The negatives from which these prints originate were exposed to airport security x-ray machines, resulting in an overexposed, bleached appearance. These decolorized images are specters of transition and hauntingly prefigure the media images coming out of Iraq on a daily basis.

Installation view "Meanwhile, In Baghdad...," 2007. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Photo: Tom van Eynde.

A more abstract image by Beshty titled Political Abstracts 1 (Library, Tschaikowskistrasse 17 Relative Color) (2006) documented a washy red liquid surface dripping with the pull of gravity. A darkroom experiment, a riff on colorfield painting or a photograph of the Embassy’s bloodied library wall; these are all potential readings of this image. Beshty’s practice is promiscuous and his photographs are arrogant and cynical, political and ridiculous, allegorical and formal. When asked about the exposed film during a panel discussion moderated by Walker, Beshty suggested that “the film continues to see,” a metaphysical response that thoroughly negates the military strategy of reconnaissance imaging.

Daniel Heyman’s eight dry point portraits depicting clumsy likenesses of tortured men from Abu Ghraib humanized these victims the way press reports and photographs cannot. Heyman also included these men’s date of birth and the date of their arrest in the background of his portraits. Scrawled around these figures are detailed statements describing their captivity and torture. For example, one print titled Our eyes were covered… (2005) states, “Our eyes were covered with plastic wrap and goggles…We were asked to undress and stay under the hot sun for hours, handcuffed…”

Maryam Jafri and Jenny Holzer’s projects expounded on the slippery employment of language, redaction, and official and unofficial statements in politics and warfare. In their work the fictitiousness of political conflict was made frightfully clear. Conversely, Jannis Kounellis’ three bed frames wrapped in strips of canvas soaked in red paint elicited visceral horrors that words cannot convey.

Jannis Kounellis, "Untitled," 2006. Three bed frames, fabric, paint; 75 x 36 x 12 inches per bed. Courtesy of  the artist and Cheim and Read. Installation view "Meanwhile, In Baghdad...," 2007. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Photo: Tom van Eynde.

Unlike the metaphorical potential inherent in the majority of the artwork comprising Meanwhile, in Baghdad…,Walker’s exhibition essay “Mo Ri Xon” is specific, timely, and debatable. He contextualizes the work in the exhibition without explaining it and sometimes that means sounding like a political pundit. For example he writes in the concluding paragraph:

The much anticipated report from General Petreus did little to quell the suspicion that Iraq may have become a “quagmire,” a description inextricably linked to the war in Vietnam. Although Colin Powell early on called such comparisons “bizarre historical illusions,” given that there is no time frame for troop withdrawal, those “illusions” are probably looking a little too real. If anything, such a comparison has only gained in detail now that the rhetoric of “shock and awe” and “the winning hearts and minds” has been exposed as having been hopelessly naive.

Walker’s Black Is, Black Ain’t is titled after a phrase borrowed from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. The exhibition examined the negotiated positions of race since the mid ’90s. Debated positions such as inclusion, representationalism, and the exhausted rhetoric of diversity are volleyed about in this loquacious exhibition that sported the work of twenty-six black and non-black artists. Walker writes, “…This exhibition surveys a moment in which race is retained yet is simultaneously rejected.” Manifesting a paradox that maintains the cultural production of “blackness” and the idea that race is irrelevant is yet another risky proposition for a curator. But Walker once again takes on a weighty subject and succeeds because of his dedication to critical matters and his commitment to exhibiting strong works of art.

Further Reading