New York

Adam McEwen

Nicole Klagsbrun

In a small booklet published to accompany his recent exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, Adam McEwen writes: “War. It’s always been all the rage. Bomber Harris, Commando Comics, Sven Hassel and every kid who grew up in Britain of parents who survived the war knew it.” McEwen’s booklet also reproduces a newspaper ad memorializing real estate developer Samuel J. Lefrak (“The Vision to See / The Faith to Believe / The Courage to Do”), images of sidewalks dotted with discarded chewing gum, a view of a landscape pocked with bomb craters, and a news brief about a boy sticking a piece of gum onto a $1.5 million Helen Frankenthaler painting during a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts—as well as a digression into the life of Hassel, a Danish writer of pulp combat fiction who drove a German Panzer tank during the war. The mixture of flippancy and historical gravitas recalled the artist’s last Klagsbrun outing—which included an enlarged, inverted image of Mussolini and his mistress on the gallows, as well as obituaries of undead celebrities and cheeky store signs telling customers to FUCK OFF WE’RE CLOSED—though here the scales were tipped toward gravitas.

In Self-Portrait as Bomber Harris (all works 2006), McEwen recreates an official black-and-white portrait photograph of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the British air marshal who oversaw the carpet bombing of German cities. Another C-print, Untitled (Dresden), an initially abstract-looking mass of white bursts against a black ground, is actually an aerial shot of fires in Dresden on the night it was bombed. Also included were two other series—a group of monochrome paintings with dirty blobs of gum flattened onto their surfaces and named after bombed German cities, and a group of nine photographs of Lefrak City, a 1960s housing development in Queens. The latter look identical at first glance but were in fact taken by McEwen within minutes of one another, such that the positions of cars on the highway and the clouds in the sky differ slightly in each.

So, how do Lefrak, bombings, and chewing gum relate? Well, in its similarity to Ways of Seeing, McEwen’s booklet also seems to evoke the spirit of John Berger, arguably as big an influence on an art student of McEwen’s generation as the war would have been on his parents. A broadly comparable exercise in the strategic juxtaposition of word and image, the publication might also act as a kind of Rosetta stone for the artist’s project as a whole, asking us to consider how a picture is read, how text and image function together, and how history itself is formed.

But where Berger’s mash-up of images is, if dated, generally coherent, McEwen’s efforts to “expand” certain elements into larger works come off looking rather thin (a little canvas and a lot of gum don’t go as far as he might have hoped). One wants to applaud art that counters painterly bombast, but comparing gum-chewing Americans with their housing developments and contrasting facile “progressive” slogans (Lefrak’s was “Live a Little Better”) with the devastation of war-time Germany feels clumsy. McEwen writes: “Harris made war acceptable. Carpet-bombing suggested the muted obliteration of that which was too distant to be seen. It was no more connected to the defacement of innocence than chewing gum on a concrete grid is to the saliva of the person who placed it there.” A nice analogy on the page, but one that entirely loses its acuity on the gallery wall.

Martha Schwendener