Bringing the War Home
Vernissage July 8, 2 – 5 pm
REVIEW | MEANING THROUGH “VISUAL MEMOIR”
By Ulrike Bender
What hits you first are the colours: saturated, vivid and intense. Then you notice the subjects: people of varying ages, standing, sitting, walking, gesticulating, a few in uniform, most casually dressed. Finally, as you focus on each work, the context: we see tableaux of figures in a room or in a grassy outdoor setting; composite scenes on a beach, in the water, in a foreign place; a woman in distress, another outraged and saddened.
On view at Blizzmax Gallery until August 6 are 14 oil paintings by Deborah Root, a painter, but also a lecturer, cultural critic and arts writer with a PhD in Social and Political Thought. In a Virtual Realism podcast hosted by Art History Babes and posted in May of 2022, Root let her interviewer know that the intent of her art practice was to use visual art as a way of expressing ideas that concerned her in her writing. She described Art History as a conservative discipline intent on aesthetics and art principles, but devoid of deep meaning. A post-colonial viewpoint, in particular, was missing, she felt.
In this show Root explores meaning expressed through memory—a difficult vehicle, given its fragmentary, fleeting and subjective nature. In her exhibition statement she writes, “… I have been constructing a ‘visual memoir’ of personal and social narratives …” The stories she tells in her paintings circle around memories of political and social events, her own and those of people close to her.
Root’s grandparents dominate in the holiday scene entitled Oahu December (A Dream of Victory). This circular panel—a tondo—depicts an elderly couple surrounded in random fashion by small clichés of relaxation in Hawaii. The grandparents are a contented pair, but in the image WW2 bombers circle the waters, reminding them as well as gallery goers that certain memories linger as we age, especially those that mark defining moments. In Peacetime (Tokyo, Forever), the large uniformed figure on the left is Root’s father, attempting in the small vignettes below to live a conventional life, but haunted by memories of the 1945 night bombing of Tokyo, which he never talked about. “Many consider those raids to be war crimes, but because ‘we’ won the war, there’s not been much discussion,” says Root. “There must have been PTSD, which no one of that generation talked about.”
Root’s own coming-of-age memories, as she calls them, find voice in two pieces that had a profound effect on her generation. The 4th of May, 1970 (Bring the War Home) references the event known as the Kent State massacre, during which the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University students demonstrating against the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine, and triggering a nation-wide student strike. Root lived in Seattle at the time, and her piece entitled The 5th of May, 1970 (Bring the War Home) recalls the day after, when 40,000 people in her city marched onto the Interstate 5, shouting anti-war slogans and carrying banners and peace signs.
In the first of the two works, surprisingly, despite the distressed expression of the largest of the protesters, whose image was taken from a Newsweek cover of the time, despite the Vietcong woman hovering in the corner and the insertion of a small scene of an earlier explosion in a New York City townhouse used as a bomb-making factory by the radical Weather Underground, the figures appear rather relaxed and nonchalant. A woman plays the guitar, another sits comfortably on the ground with her legs and arms crossed. The people in the second piece, despite the ghosted helicopter, are smiling, waving, smoking, perhaps, a cigarette. This was a time when those who found themselves on the periphery of the anger were caught up but perhaps a bit unsure of how to take part. Yes, music figured largely in the times, as did drugs and outrage, but the partial figure in the first piece warily, half-heartedly, clenches his fist. And we’re not sure if the hand on the disembodied arm in the second piece is trying to make the peace sign. Just as these images contain major and minor players, so Root’s memories categorize and try to construct a whole from fragmented elements.
Liberty Guiding the People, a tondo referencing a more recent clash between protesters and police—the three-day G20 demonstration in Toronto in 2010—captures the moment before violence erupted. There is still a kind of normalcy as cyclists and pedestrians continue on their way and police stand in random fashion, but the figure facing us and standing in the middle—the focal point—holds her water bottle upside-down. Everyone is shielded by their sunglasses. The image is mostly black and white, but nothing is certain. There is tension in the air. “The title refers to Eugene Delacroix’s heroic and rather propagandistic painting of the 1830 revolution in France. But here, we see the reality, people confused and moving in different directions, unsure of what to do,” says Root, who was at the event filming and photographing. In this case the memory is clearer.
Reconstructing events and feelings that emerge during vacations and visits to exotic locales requires a certain rigour, often because these times contain not enough information (the boredom of beachside trips) or too much. Memories are again fragmentary. In the case of The Ladies Waiting Room, Colombo, Root prioritizes her memories by focussing on the cultural norms of this place. She has her large, angry principal figure, a foreign tourist, interrogate the Sri Lankan civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, and in which it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Tamils were killed. The ghosted Tamil woman shown at the bottom is bent over, picking tea, as Tamils still do today, a reminder of the slaughter and the human rights abuses during the war. The Foreigners, ostensibly a snapshot of an enjoyable vacation in a North African or sub-Saharan country, nevertheless points to the consequences of colonialism in this part of the world and underlines the continued military presence caused by internecine conflict. Again, viewers must read the fine print: the main characters—the tourists—are well dressed, smiling and relaxed, while the inhabitants—the smaller figures—wear t-shirts or tote guns.
During the Virtual Realism podcast Root explained that she had been painting for four years and learned oil painting techniques online. With neither a background in art history nor visual arts, she took a risk. If her anatomical authenticity falls short of the norm, her impactful use of colour and mastery of composition, especially contrast, make for successful images. As viewers we do, indeed, become engaged and challenged by the ideas her memories bring to the fore.
I am interested in the radical possibilities of figurative painting, and various ways meaning can operate at a less conscious level than in written language. To this end, my work constructs personal and social narratives, utilizing fragments and occlusions to represent the dissonance that is part of memory and consciousness. It is this slippage of meaning I endeavour to provoke.
Forms bleed into each other; parts are cut off–and yet a narrative is constructed. These fragmented compositions and strong colours amplify moments of disconnection in the social and familial arenas, and the relative flatness of the objects surrounding the central players underlines the stagelike reality characteristic of the moments I depict.
For instance, much of my recent work deals with tourism, and with the disjointed experience of the tourist at the vacation spot and in the memories experienced afterwards. Because memory is inevitably one’s own, I often place myself in the image, reminding the viewer that what is being represented is my experience, and my fragmentary memories. Strategies include fracturing the narrative background and contrasting graphic and realistic images to create a tense visual dynamic, and to convey an emotional truth about whiteness and privilege.
My influences include Gothic art and early Spanish apocalypses because of the contrast between the flatness of the images and the complex arrangement of material on the page. I have also been influenced by pre-European Mexican conventions of representation, in particular the pictorial texts that operate like storyboards. Eric Fischl’s images of suburban anxiety showed me the possibilities within such narratives, and I have been profoundly struck by the complex images of contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, in particular his use of graphic design elements and strong color in his painting. At present I’m looking at work by female Surrealists, in particular Leonora Carrington.
About the Artist:
Deborah Root is a painter and cultural critic whose works focus on the radical possibilities of painting, and the relationship between visual arts and cultural politics. Recently turning from art writing to art production, she has exhibited at the Lacuna Festival in (Lanzarote, Spain, 2022 and 2023), the Memory and Identity exhibition (Cista Arts Centre, London, UK, 2022), the “When Did Fairytales Change?” exhibition, (Liebig12 Art Centre, Berlin, 2022), the “Virtual Realism” exhibition (arthistorybabes.com, 2021), at the “As I See It” show (Blizzmax Gallery, Prince Edward County, Ontario 2022), the “POV in PEC” exhibition (Hatch Gallery, Prince Edward County, Ontario, 2021), and elsewhere. Video work includes regret relief (4:21”), exhibited at the Fastnet Short Film Festival, 2012, and Friday (5″, in collaboration with Shani Mootoo), exhibited at a Pride 2010 event in Toronto and at Alice Yard Art Centre in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2011.
Root has taught visual art and cultural politics at OCAD, University of Guelph, and Bilkent University in Turkey, and her catalog writing includes substantive essays on Sarindar Dhaliwal, Jorge Lozano, Ximena Cuevas and Annie Pootoogook, and her arts writing has appeared in Art Papers, Prefix Photo, Public, C magazine, the Contact Photography and Bienal de Sao Paulo catalogs, other Canadian and international journals. She is the author of Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference, which was named Gustavus Gustavus Myers 1996 Outstanding Book in Human Rights, and listed in “These 16 Books Explain White Supremacy in the U.S.”, BuzzFeed News, 2017.