“Compassionate Images”

N.A.M.E. Gallery

The theme of “Compassionate Images” for an exhibition of contemporary figurative painting reveals more about curatorial idealism than about the ideology of that art. What was most striking about this carefully selected and modulated exhibition, curated by Paul Krainak, was how much it looked like a show of portraits of people engulfed by sadness and loneliness. The emotional response one had to the images was not so much compassion as a matching sadness and confusion. The question then became that of who was demonstrating and who receiving the compassion—the artist, the subject, or the viewer? And here the exhibition’s premise, though provocative, ultimately does not persuade. Since these images do not communicate compassion, yet are curatorially intended to evoke it in the viewer, one had to read the titles of the works in order to determine the reason for the vague atmosphere of melancholy here. Until we know their identity, for example, we cannot be expected to feel sympathy for Mike Glier’s murdered Atlantans, for without labels they are merely portraits generated from media photographs of black children.

“The nobility of the compassionate instinct,” remarks the curator in his catalogue essay, “tends to subdue its formal depiction.” History is not called upon to prove the all-too-obvious contrary. In another essay in the catalogue, the search backward for retrospective corroboration yields Renaissance iconography—the Madonna della Misericordia and pieta. But the conflation of 15th-century images of piety and 20th-century images of desperation is pure anachronism. We are as numbed to the meaning of these earlier icons as we are distanced from their contextual signification.

What distinguishes the work here from the more usual package of anxiety-ridden expressionists is a mood of restraint, of contemplation approaching passivity. One feels curious about what Jane Dickson’s nicely rendered, withdrawn types are thinking about in their Hopper-like isolation. Wonsook Kim’s stylized drawings, which recall Ludwig Bemelman’s illustrations for Madeleine, suggest less a compassion for lonely children than nostalgic autobiographical recollection. Ron Cohen’s intense self-portrait, luridly illuminated with green lights, graphically confronts self-preoccupation. Michael Zwack’s images are not decipherable as compassionate; their haunting quality depends on their purposeful formal elusiveness and emotional ambiguity. They resist categorization.

The exceptions to these subdued depictions seemed to jump off the wall. Thomas Lawson’s and Glier’s subjects are victims deserving of compassion, and paradoxically their portraits are the most strident formal statements here––Lawson’s because of his high colored, belligerently awkward faces, Glier’s because of his dramatic presentation of black-and-white-mask portraits. The inclusion of these images under the rubric of compassion raises the question of the motives of the artists and of the implied liberal audience: is compassion an appropriate response to tragedy, and is the appropriation of these children’s faces empathic or a means to achieve facile moral lessons?

The exhibition derives much of its polemical thrust from an idealistic position calculatedly posed against two adversaries: the cynicism and nihilism of some media-based art, and the self-indulgence of neo-Expressionism. The work here is neither sensational nor histrionic. Depending on mass media to define its criticality, so that what was once a position is now a convention, it favors a contemplative mood over neo-Expressionist fervor and conceptual cynicism. But when the show took on the tone of a moral primer, it verged on ersatz liberalism and conservative esthetics. According to the curator, “paint provides a more substantive dimension in which to recall symptoms of societal adversity than photography and other conventional methods of reportage, which are often manipulated to produce a series of interchangeable fictions that parade as facts.” This passage, echoing Roland Barthes, misses the mark, for if we have learned anything from Barthes it is that all culture (including compassion) is fiction posturing as truth.

These images were summoned as models of behavior, representing the good and true art in the face of superficial fashion and the media—bogeymen whose domination and power have been blown way out of proportion in order to justify a constant cannibalization of them. The contrasts here—photography versus painting, cynicism versus simple truths, careerism versus good intentions—were polemical and artificial, since some of these artists by necessity are engaged with the same concerns as their opponents, and ironists in the media are probably as “compassionate” in intention as they are. Photojournalism, indeed modern photography, has its own well-developed history of compassion, and can evoke compassion in the viewer as much as these painted images of societal adversity. By now we understand the twin perils of the media—desensitization and manipulation. The show obscured more troubling artistic and moral issues, and although the quality of compassion seems emotionally necessary, it appeared artistically insufficient. The fact that compassion is a noble expression didn’t make these images more noble, but the fact that they had to confront this new label made us scrutinize them more closely. Compassionate images may have intuitive appeal, but their artistic instantiation in this exhibition was self-effacing.

Judith Russi Kirshner