To the Rescue, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a humanitarian organization devoted to the care of the world's refugees, opened its copious photographic archives to eight artists and solicited their aesthetic responses. This exhibition of their work is intriguing and brave, and though slack in spots, is undeniably moving.
Congratulations are due all around: to the JDC for the creativity to organize this show, to the artists for the courage to use some of the most horrifying source material available, to curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric for showcasing these works effectively, and to the Miami Art Museum for the good sense to bring this show here.
To the Rescue is an effective plea for understanding and the end of hatred, a plea which makes mere art criticism irrelevant.
Unfortunately, mere art criticism is this writer's charge, and it has to be said that the works vary in their success. Throughout the show there is a tension between catastrophe and aesthetics, and the strain evident in some of the work is considerable.
This tension is perhaps best described by French photographer Gilles Peress, in a statement about his own piece:
This cannot be art, being as a procedure more akin to forsenic archaeology, where from fragments of images and shards of evidence we may begin, with limited time and resources, to evoke.
His three large format books, entitled
A Few Things My Father Never Told Me..., juxtapose images of the Holocaust - men withering to nothing in their prison uniforms, women being led away by soldiers, and more and worse - with cold statistical reports of mass murders and excerpts of infuriating, mule-brained Nazi propaganda. Sprinkled throughout are photos of pages from a Bernard Malamud novel and other images which make this a complex, profoundly disturbing work. It's art, all right, good art at that, but the artist's hesitance to come off as an aesthete is understandable.
The next room contains
Partisans by Leon Golub. A painter whose work is hard to like but impossible to dismiss, Golub has been tackling political content using a rough, clotted style for much of his career. He painted nothing for this piece, however; his entry is a roomful of large photographic transparencies of the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, suspended at funky angles. The fighters look proud, even rakish, but this is not Golub at his best, and the piece looks like it belongs in a nightclub.
Pepón Osorio likened the Jews' survival and escape to safety to a kind of prestidigitation, and he created an installation of altered old furniture, little tuxedoed figures in various traps, playing cards, and videos of a magician performing slight-of-hand. Its flippancy and shallowness is astonishing, but in its defense, it's easy to imagine it being liked by one particular Jew: Erich Weiss, better-known as Houdini.
What threatens to be a horrendous lapse of taste - the interpretation of Holocaust photographs as elegant abstract paintings - is instead pulled off with great success by Terry Winters. Winters' frenzied, monochromal works on paper capture the tonalities of the old photographs and create an atmosphere of claustrophobia, anxiety, and vigorous, dictated movement.
Wendy Ewald's piece consists largely of a video of children from a North Carolina junior high describing the life of Jews and Nazis during wartime in first person. Hesitance to call it art would be justifiable; it's more of an educational project captured on video. Ewald's power to expand the awareness of these children is obvious, however, and the viewer is heartened to witness it.
The crowd of beheaded homunculi will be familiar to those who know Magdalena Abakanowicz's oeuvre. As a one-time refugee herself, she speaks in this show with particular authority. Her crowd effectively captures the effect that refugee status has on people: their reduction to barely differentiated, mobile, defenseless units of suffering.
Fred Wilson covered copies of the archive's photos with mats which obscure all but a tiny rectangular fragment of the images. They are meant as a comment on the archive's final inability to convey its entire story. In this exhibition, which otherwise celebrates the photographs' power to inform, Wilson's frustrated reaction to the archive seems trivial and misplaced.
Last and best is
Gathering Stones, an installation by Alan Berliner. In a darkened room, old photographic portraits are projected onto the floor. Viewers are invited to place stones on the images, as per the Jewish custom of placing them on a grave. These images of the presumably dead glow on the white stones, altered but retaining their haunting expressions. This piece proves what could be a summation of
To the Rescue - that beauty, respect, and redemption can rise up out of the very stuff of grief.
To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive is on display at the Miami Art Museum until November 28. Call 305-375-3000 for more information.