A young soldier, stationed in Alaska and destined for Iraq, wrote home recently to say that he’d been chosen to greet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was visiting the base, and to share the dais with him at a reception. Later, after it was announced that President Bush was also to visit, the soldier wrote again to say he'd been bumped in favor of another whose family was available to be photographed. We know what the resulting image looks like without needing to actually see it: the President warmly grasping the hand of a clean-cut young man who stands straight and brave in his uniform while his proud, smiling parents look on. It’s just this kind of manufactured moment—real but not real, staged to serve the interests of power—that has intrigued Lawrence Gipe from the beginning of his life as an artist, and provides the source material on which his work is based.
Gipe’s stance, however, is not political. He takes no position, tells no story. Instead he reconstitutes and recontexualizes authoritarian images from between the World Wars to the present—culled from old issues of Fortune, US Camera,German photography manuals and posters from World War II, publications of the WPA and TVA, World’s Fair promotions and, more recently, Web sites of governmental agencies and their providers—juxtaposing them one with another while leaving us, the viewers, to come to our own conclusions. These are questions without answers, about how the powerful present their agenda to the public and the thin aesthetic veneer that can make their message palatable, even attractive, no matter how sinister the implications.
By elevating these commonplace images to the level of serious subjects for painting and executing them with an exquisite hand that forces us to regard them as art, Gipe is asking us to view with skepticism the impulse behind any image, whether produced by the media machine or an artist like himself. As Jenny Holzer has proclaimed in neon, “The abuse of power comes as no surprise,” yet it seems we are continually surprised when it takes on new guises and manifests in our own era. Who would have thought twenty years ago, for instance, that insurance and pharmaceutical firms would come to be seen as the robber barons of the twenty-first century, or that the name Halliburton would become synonymous with greed?
Recently Halliburton, and all it represents, has become a theme for Gipe; however, he started with images that preceded his time. In his early teens he stayed up late watching films with his father, a screenwriter, who Gipe describes as having been obsessed with the Warner Brothers output from the 1930s and 40s, many of them war films where the polemic was set up in a way that admitted to no muddiness, where there were good guys and bad guys and nothing in-between. While the motivations for fighting World War II were as close to pure as in any war in U.S. history, the forces of self-interest were still at work, and it’s this gray area that Gipe chooses to explore. “My research began with knowing what I’d seen as a child was fiction and trying to discover the truth about it,” Gipe says, “and when people see my work, perhaps they’ll see the correlation between how information was presented then and the motivations that could lurk behind what’s put forth today.”
Gipe’s work in graduate school, when he attended the Otis/Parsons Institute of Design in Los Angeles in the early 80s, was based on the Panopticon, an architectural concept once proposed as a model prison by the eighteenth-century British philosopher and theorist of prison reform Jeremy Bentham and discussed at length in Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The main feature of the Panopticon was a many-storied circular wall surrounding a central tower from which the prisoners could be constantly surveyed by unseen guards who peeped at them through Venetian blinds. The idea was that the prisoners would become so used to this condition of continuous observation that their behavior would be mediated by it regardless of whether someone was actually watching them. “Foucault saw the Panopticon as a metaphor for the bureaucratizing of our system,” Gipe says. When he used the image in his paintings it was from the perspective of looking down into the structure, and he describes the canvas’ surfaces as “all gnarled and built up with modeling paste, like those of Marcus Lupertz and the other post-Nazi era German artists.”
Later Gipe’s paint handling lost its crusty edge and became more lyrical as he applied, in the twenty paintings in his Fin de Siècle series (1989-90), an almost romantic sensibility to decidedly unromantic subject matter: the monuments to industry such as bridges and locomotives that transformed the landscape in the 20s and 30s. In the manner of the totalitarian posters of that time, Gipe’s canvases are emblazoned with single words, such as “Pride,” “Desire,” “Territory,” “Acquisition,” “Guilt,” and “Possession,” which he chose because he felt they were “poetic, open-ended and laden.” He wanted to see how these simple words would affect images that already had meaning. The words don’t “tell” us anything; there is no narrative. Instead the viewer becomes caught somewhere between the picture and the text, not unlike what happens when the mood of a filmed scene is overlaid with a soundtrack. The result is paintings with a look that is at once contemporary and eerily nostalgic. Gipe frequently cultivates an atmosphere of nostalgia but in a manner that can only be considered ironic, since the things he’s waxing sentimental over most often represent not the best but the worst—and, as in the Krupp series that followed, the most horrific—of man’s enterprises.
The Krupp Project series (1990) was inspired by a book by William Manchester,The Arms of Krupp, which was first published in 1968 and is still in print, now with a sub-title: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty that Armed Germany at War.Gipe was fascinated with the interwoven threads of self-interest that comprise the story of Alfred Krupp, who built up his company by relying on the slave labor of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom died as a result of their treatment—around 70,000 by one estimate. Krupp was tried at Nuremberg as a war criminal and served twelve years in prison, after which he was released by the occupying Americans who restored all of his assets to him; within a few years he’d built his company into the twefth largest in the world. With the Krupp series, the text in Gipe’s paintings segued from single words into phrases; but because they’re in German -- and sometimes even Middle German -- they maintain a delicate level of obscurity; instead of overwhelming the image, they interact with it; we look from text to image and image to text, seeking answers we’ll never find.
By titling his next group of works 20th Century Limited, Gipe appears to be commemorating the luxury train which, beginning in 1902, rushed the rich between Chicago and New York City—but it can also be read as a hindsight commentary on the period itself: 20th Century, limited. Certainly the optimism that greeted industrialization at the beginning of that epoch was tempered by its end. The theme is again man’s attempts at power: over nature in the harnessing of energy by industry, or other humans through political domination. Figures such as Krupp, Albert Speer, Robert Moses and Teddy Roosevelt who, for better or worse, sought to transform society with their visions, hover like ghosts in Gipe’s singularly unpeopled panoramas, which are often montages comprised of symbols of their might. The irony is that many of Gipe’s paintings are in themselves monumental, and this series was crowned by a four-panel painting, 20th Century Limited(1998), which spans thirty-two feet. A train, a plane, a piston, a skyscraper and a generator that was a precursor of atomic energy, merge in a composition that emphasizes their aggressive characteristics. These are interspersed with globe-like structures such as the sculpture of Atlas holding up the world that identifies Rockefeller Center, and the colossal Perisphere and Unisphere of New York World’s Fairs -- technological renderings of Mother Earth in which testosterone has run amok. Felt but unseen are the myriad workers who were responsible for the creation of these buildings and their investment, like ours, in a future that promised prosperity.
Text is absent in this series, and the titles take on new importance while the exquisiteness of Gipe’s painting technique heightens the works’ essential ambiguity. The beauty in Gipe’s paintings is never benign, but emerges as the other side of darkness, forcing us to acknowledge that beauty can be found anywhere -- in man’s monuments to hubris, as well his agents of destruction (as exemplified by the reconnaissance planes that constitute one of Gipe’s frequent themes) and even the destruction itself. One of Gipe’s most blatantly beautiful paintings is of a golden cityscape reflected in a bay, muted by a Turner-esque lavender haze. However, the visual pleasure one takes in the image is mitigated by the title -- Sicily, 1944 (Dawn after the Raid)(1998). While some of Gipe’s contemporaries work from a similar premise -- one thinks of Richard Misrach’s breathtaking landscape photographs of radioactive sites or Edward Burtynsky’s formally satisfying photographs of nature desecrated by industry -- Turner may well have been the first to explore the irony inherent in presenting gritty, politically charged subject matter in a sublime manner when, in 1840, he painted Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On.
The uneasy relationship between politics and art is the subject of Gipe’s next two groups of paintings, which focus on the Nazi regime’s attempts to define what art should look like and bring it into line with its racial theories. The Last Picture Showrefers, actually, to two exhibitions mounted in 1937: the Great German Art Exhibition of officially approved art and a traveling exhibition of condemned works, purged from the nation’s museums, designed to reveal to the masses the insanity and depravity of what we now call modern art as practiced by many who later became known as its masters: Kandinsky, Beckmann, Nolde, Chagall, Ernst, and Koskochka. The experiment backfired as visitors, estimated at some three million, thronged to see the “degenerate” art, while the halls of the official exhibition, as depicted in Gipe’s Panel #2 from The Last Picture Show remained eerily empty.
The late Pop sculptor George Segal once remarked, during the controversy surrounding his Gay Liberation (1980) piece in New York City’s Sheridan Square, that “the Philistines have more belief in the power of art than artists do.” Certainly the Nazis felt art had the capacity to influence human conduct, and they associated Expressionism and Surrealism’s distortions of form and scale with deviant behavior. Photography, on the other hand, was not yet considered fine art, and therefore not subject to the same strictures. Thus photographers could experiment with new ideas, while painters were stuck working within the uninspiring confines of neo-classicism. Der Blick (1999), which looks like something right out of Man Ray, is painted from an image Gipe found in a German photographic manual from 1942. “The irony,” Gipe says, “is that if you paint an approved photograph, you don’t necessarily get an approved painting.”
A Nazi artist, however, would not have had any trouble obtaining approval for a painting such as Gipe’s Elements, Morning, 1935 (2004), which depicts well-dressed men and women, their backs to us as they walk toward the sunlight, heading toward a bridge on their way to work. It’s early spring, still cool enough so that coats and hats are in order, and the light streaming through the trees casts the shadows of leaves on the ground. It’s a placid, everyday scene; these could be any people, anywhere, doing what ordinary people do—it’s an image so harmless, so quotidian that they might as well be us, doing what we do. Yet they are and they aren’t. These particular people were residents of Hamburg, Germany, in 1935, so it stands to reason that some of them must have been among the 13.7 million German citizens who voted for the Nazi party three years before. And what of their jobs? Were they involved in producing and selling a necessary product such as, say, shoes? Or did some of them have government jobs that made them responsible, wittingly or unwittingly, for destroying the lives of innocent people?
This painting has its literary counterpart in Bernhard Schlink’s short but powerful novel, The Reader. Far from a polemic, The Reader is a love story in which those who carried out the terrible events of the Nazi era are depicted not as monsters, but normal people, just doing their jobs. In the book Hanna, a former concentration camp guard, is being asked by a judge why she did not unlock the doors of a church containing women prisoners who consequently burned to death when the building was hit by bombs, and she answers in chillingly practical terms:
How could we have guarded all those women? A line like that is very long, even if you keep it as tight together as possible, you need far more people than we had…how could we have restored order? There would have been chaos, and we had no way to handle that. And if they tried to escape….We couldn’t just let them escape! We were responsible for them….that was the point. We had to guard them and not let them escape. That’s why we didn’t know what to do./p>
Finally she turns to the judge and asks, “What would you have done?” When he answers her with a platitude, she asks another question, “Should I not have taken the job…?”
Was the woman in Schlink’s story inherently evil? Surely there are people who are, but there may be many more, perhaps most people, whose actions, whose sense of right and wrong, might be mitigated by the circumstances in which they find themselves. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell cites a Stanford psychological study where participants with no history of aggression, chosen specifically for their psychological stability, erupted into violence when placed in a simulated prison setting and divided arbitrarily into “prisoners” and “guards.” Gladwell’s assertion is that we’d like to believe we act in certain ways because our ethical nature is innate, but the reality may be that everyone’s behavior is influenced by context, possibly more strongly than we’re ready to accept.
Gipe appears to be saying it’s all a matter of degree, or perhaps interpretation. What is the difference, say, between the Hanna of Schlink’s story, whose prisoners die because she doesn’t open the doors of the church, and the Wal-Mart manager who makes a practice of locking his employees in at night? To the Wal-Mart employee who cannot get medical care in an emergency, the distinction may be negligible. The pharmaceutical executive who chooses to distribute a drug he knows to have lethal side effects could be the gentle family man next door. And what about those capable-looking guys in orange protective gear and hard hats on Halliburton’s Web site under the slogan, “Unleash the Energy”? What’s their motivation? Are they working in our best interests?
To Gipe, it’s a matter of semantics. Some of his more recent paintings have been based on views of New York City taken by Nazi photographers, and one of these, from 2000, is of the interior of the original Penn Station (Panel #5 from Amerika,Penn Station, 1938), which appears almost church-like, with shafts of light beaming from a vast arched window. It would not be surprising if the Nazis documented Penn Station with the intention of contributing to its ultimate destruction, since transportation hubs and places of great significance to a city’s citizens have always been targets of war. Penn Station was both, and the loss of this architectural masterpiece is mourned to this day. Yet its destruction came, not at the hands of a so-called enemy, but of mega-builder Robert Moses (1888-1981) in the interest of urban renewal. In implementing his plans for the city of New York, Moses destroyed neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. To Gipe, these constitute “acts of terrorism” in their effect, the only difference being the words used to sanction them.
Gipe forces us into these uncomfortable assessments, and reminds us that the choices we make every day contribute to the events that will one day be viewed as history. His work entreats us to heed the lessons of the past, and observe ourselves as we will be judged by future generations.
The quotation from George Segal is from a conversation with the writer.
The Arms of Krupp: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty that Armed Germany at War, William Manchester, Back Bay Books, 2003.
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, Vintage, 1999.
"Workers Assail Night Lock-ins by Wal-Mart," by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, January 18, 2004.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Back Bay Books, 2002.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage, 1996.