Art In A Time Of War

Leon Golub’s four decades of indignant humanism was evergreen

A naked, bloody, and bound prisoner contorted on the floor; a dead woman who had been severely beaten and harassed by dogs; a man apparently sodomized by a group of soldiers; a hooded prisoner and a bloody cell. These are the images and ideas that inhabit the paintings of Leon Golub.

There is a long tradition of artists responding to man’s inhumanity to man and Golub has made a substantial contribution to the lineage of artists who faced atrocity head on and made an unflinching response to it. Artists such as Goya, Picasso, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Dinos and Jake Chapman, and more have offered up dissent in the face of the public’s passive disregard.

Images of torture and oppression—while not pretty to look at—are all too prevalent in the public sphere. The recent revelation of new images and videos documenting American as well as British military abuse, torture, and killing of Iraqis is anathema to a horrified public, but to the gaze of Golub it is not surprising at all.

Golub’s indignant humanism and dark imagery gained some notoriety with his political thug narratives made during the Vietnam War. Images of military men and mercenaries alike torturing their victims with guns, electrocution, and the dogs of war are common themes. Paintings from this period offer a range of dimension and imagination. “Burnt Man IV” and “Napalm I” depict flesh charred upon a grimy surface of thick, scabbed paint applied and appraised with visceral empathy by artist and viewer respectively.

The writer Clayton Eshelman captured Golub’s essence in the following excerpt from his poetic essay “Monumental”—“Leon Golub rounded up four boots, grew military torturer legs in them, shiny brown pedestals on which outside my bedroom door a naked man hanging upside down is being whacked.”

Golub continued through out his life to explore the darkness at the base and fringe of our world; narratives that governments and ostensibly their people, feigning ignorance, would prefer to have swept under the carpet. Eshelman further elaborates that throughout the 1980s while “other American’s saw angels beaming at Reagan, Golub saw Contras destroying Nicaraguan grain silos, health centers, [and] cutting off women’s breasts.”

Until his death in 2004, Golub further contributed to the vocabulary of war. From 2001 to 2003, he created a series of paintings capturing the ecstatic U.S. march to war and the corresponding underbelly imagery peppered with phrases such as “We Love Our Leader” and “This Could Be You” scrawled over the surface––ever reminding us to gaze upon the insanity of war lest we forget and find it waiting outside our bedroom door.

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