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Ann Nathan Gallery
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
The major religions tell us that our rituals, our pledges of fidelity, and our requiems, are not needs of God (who does not need them), but are meant for we who live, for as long as that life remains. We are born, we live, and then... we die. But we are not animals. If we do not release our grief, it poisons us. If we do not honor noble acts, we ourselves become far less. If we do not love, what is human in us slowly dies. This is our singular essence: it drives our thought, our words, our art.
Bruno Surdo's Tragedy, Memory & Honor is at Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, from April 5 through April 20, 2002. It is a cry of grief, an honoring of sacrifice, an act of love for fellowman. It is a moving work of art.
We have today so much clever art, self-conscious art, impoverished art; and armies of apologists looking for a nail on which to hang their latest clipped and pasted logicalities: Publish or Perish -- whatever whatnot, juggernaut, or flotsam seems most fashionable. Lovers of art are in checkmate with analyses by agendas, PR, a striving for novelties and ethereal philosophies. We rarely learn that a work is exciting, evocative or, perhaps, truly stirs deeply felt emotion. (Surdo's painting is all that.) Virtue, nobility of spirit, any faith beyond a calculation of the here and now, unless dealt with ironically, are dismissed with a coy smirk or an honest, self-embarrassed blush. (Surdo's work successfully navigates all that.) Even more rarely do critics admit that a feeling is a shared, a common, consensus beyond their academe. They throw away centuries of fine art that reconciles human nature with the world; a legacy that honors certain human acts as above and beyond what any would demand. Bruno Surdo's Tragedy, Memory & Honor, if only now, has touched that source and it has sprung to life anew. (Public response, among both art novice and initiate, raises profound questions here.) Surdo's Tragedy, Memory & Honor is significant. It provokes questioning: about the content of the art, an artist's motives, the art's effects and consequence.
Tragedy, Memory & Honor measures nine by thirty-five feet; oil paint on canvas, with (atypical for this artist) elements of collage. Although it spans five assembled panels, the work, as its title indicates, is built around three visual foci. The leftmost third represents the New York World Trade Center's sudden tragedy; at right, one finds the artist's response to the coalescing, and often heroic aftermath. The center, last in Surdo's conception, unites this entire work with a sense of what endures, a common bond of individuals reduced to memory.
The artist chose a subdued, 'smoky' palette, echoing the uncanny darkness at midday, recorded by now familiar footage of 'ground zero' following the Twin Towers' collapse. However, as the artist notes, the work is not a record, but a deeply felt response. Surdo visited the site to see firsthand; he spoke with the fire fighters, rescue workers, and those searching for news of someone they had lost. He even picked up some fragments of paper, incorporated in the central vignette: bits of stationary bearing corporate logos, a charred WTC memo on building security.
Surdo's art till now has built upon and extended, contemporized, a representational inheritance beginning with the masters of the Renaissance. He has explored new avenues of figurative art and its illusions. But, an artist with great talent, to satisfy himself, will always push the gap between what we see, and what we make of it. Tragedy, Memory & Honor is a departure. It is not about the evolution of art technique, paradigms -- doing art -- or even the human core of art. It is immediate. An act of faith.
There is a very human core. Above the left focus of this work -- a mural on canvas, really -- the upper portion swirls in an expressionist maelstrom worthy of van Gogh in agony, an Edvard Munch, a Jackson Pollock. Continuing to center, this stream of brush strokes brightens, flows toward the painting's central theme: specific individuals have died, but persist in memory. In the background, stairs ascend into an unsuspected hell. Surdo sees a Dante Alighieri's inferno... a hell of innocents, of heroic sacrifice on their behalf. In his Inferno, Dante wrote: "I had not thought death had undone so many." Surdo's painting gives it flesh.
Surdo's composition is sequential: at left, beams and girders hurl from above; at farthest right, they lie as barriers to aid. Tragedy builds a Classical tension: the crowd's gaze draws attention to the upper right; their flight pours into the lower left. Only the two firemen resist that rush; both regard only the endangered. Foremost, a black fireman pulls forth a stunned woman, while shouting to his comrades. As in Greek tragedy, the gesture, the detail here, is visually functional and significant.
At furthest right, Surdo's expression resolves to greater clarity of contour and edge. The play of deep shadow and directed, focal light is more dispersed; the individuals more emblematic. The assembled figures compose a pyramid of forms, drawing the viewer's eye above and beyond the scene. Each individual contributes to an unresolved, but resurrectional coda. Here, the artist subtly echoes motifs so integral to mainstream sensibility as to be immediate and visceral. As with the Renaissance masters who are his inspiration, Surdo consolidates and orchestrates a deeply shared iconography. Several viewers at the exhibition opening found analogy between the three men who raise the national flag at right and the celebrated photo of the re-taking of Iwo Jima in World War II. The woman still further to image right drew comparisons -- with Dorothea Lange's classic photographs of Ozark women worn by adversity; even Mary Magdalene mourning Christ from beneath His cross. So immediate, and yet open-ended are these images, that a few fancied the fallen concrete pillars in the foreground as an implied cross. (The artist calls that unintentional, but the response attests to a deeper, universal sense to Surdo's art). In recent decades, much writing concentrates on ambiguity and irony in modern art. Tragedy, Memory & Honor indicates that American society can have, does have a visual vernacular; and that it is capable of serious art.
Surdo's panoramic painting, as did the tragedy which gave it birth, reflects the diverse ethnicity of American society. The central focus, Memory, broadens that content even more. The artist noted that these form a typology. Surdo recruited models to exemplify the variety of people who perished there, and often questioned those who posed about their own feelings to the tragedy. (He even considered incorporating their words into the work itself.) The artist did, however, avoid using any specific likenesses of victims out of deference to grieving relatives and survivors. Surdo began this work in late October -- his personal distress at the attack prompted it. A private donor has funded its subsequent creation.
Such a deep personal commitment of the artist contributes to this work. There have been a number of 9-11 exhibitions and events in Chicago since the World Trade Center attack. Many of them, however sincere or well-intentioned, have seemed dispassionate, officious, at times, only vaguely relevant. Previous work by Bruno Surdo was reviewed in www.artscope.net as "Dualities of Life: New Oils on Canvas" (Feb. 2001). His art offers more than enough complexities for critics to dissect, but above all it stirs heartfelt, immediate humanity. Tragedy, Memory & Honor is visceral. Throughout the world, whether recognized as a distinct activity or not, art arose from a society and held common ground within that society. The creative individual and those with whom, and for whom, he created shared a consensus: they recognized a common bond. If one forgets this bond, art is reduced to the private preserve of arcane elites, and, outside those circles -- perhaps as a consequence -- a popular notion is fostered that art is just superfluous or merely ornament. Surdo's art denies that fallacy.
Surdo's work, building upon and transforming a grand representational legacy, draws from deep roots. Tragedy, Memory & Honor brings to the fore important concerns for artists and their wider public. Tragedy, Memory & Honor is not political art. The artist confirms that. And in this an academic debate finds root. A philosopher of art asserts there is little art can do to reconcile us to the world, our feelings, and beliefs. To some degree that is true. Another such philosopher asserts that a black pillar can ease our grief, remember victims for all time, that it can honor sacrifice. And to a similar degree, that must certainly prove false. Over three thousand died when two terrorist planes brought down Manhattan's Twin Towers. Tens of millions died in the last World War. Each number represents an individual. But... it is impossible to feel for numbers. Faces are another matter. Each single one of us, each breathing individual, the artist, we who join with him, eventually join the dead, no matter what the circumstance. Surdo's impressive piece joins a shared and felt mortality with creative act. It is more evident, and that more powerful, because his art offers real images. We see faces....
Those directly under fire; this Chicago artist; and we the viewers: all share a common bond. Dr. Rollo May, analyst and writer, in his book, The Courage to Create (Bantam Books:1985), observed: "We human beings know that we must die. Creativity is a yearning for immortality." His conclusions, the result of real world experience, come to mind before Surdo's painting:
And in this new millennium, that is not so abstract nor without its consequence...
An acquaintance, a lover of popular music, refuses to listen to Mozart's Requiem. She protests -- "it would be depressing." For centuries it has been a source of great strength. Mozart died before finishing it. (Sussmayr, a protege, made it a finished piece.) But, what Mozart himself did write is complete in and of itself -- a reconciliation with the inevitable fate of every man; a triumph in the face of death; still more, a timeless affirmation of undefeated life. Two centuries of change and passing styles in music -- yet it defiantly persists for reasons, all of which elude any rational or scholarly critique.
W.H. Auden, in his poem, Canzone, affirmed that:
But stated, in his final lines:
Whether guided by instinct or faith, we nonetheless respond with hope. Man has a memory, a reason; and with it all a sense of tragedy. Still the human creature answers threat and tragedy with strength, with fellowship. Tomorrow we awaken, and give gratitude to those who made it possible. Some artists are concerned with that. It forms their art.
Bruno Surdo's Tragedy, Memory & Honor is at Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, from April 5 through April 20, 2002. It hangs together with four other canvases by this artist: The Guides; The Re-emergence of Venus; Flora of the Subway; and Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.
It once again affirms:
Et lux perpetua luceat eis
A light with which we see ourselves.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net are often in print and may be purchased through this magazine's Amazon.com link. W.H. Auden is quoted from The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (Random House:1945).
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