Do We Need Another Hero?

Two shows at Phoenix Art Museum redefine heroes as both victims and bullies

Some 30 years after "Mrs. Robinson," no one wonders, in cheery Simon-and-Garfunkel tones, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Everyone knows that, when his time came, the Yankee Clipper quietly limped down from the pinstriped Olympus of his day, married and divorced a tragic beauty and slipped into a life of old-timers' games, sports dinners and Mr. Coffee.

Somehow, his celebrity didn't drain his dignity. Yet not many other modern heroes--sporting, political or otherwise--have fared so well. We like our heroes flawed, and often flayed. Death becomes them. When they and their reputations aren't being killed outright, they're being whittled and enfeebled by our freakish delight and commerce in petty gossip, character flaws and the urge to know the real story.

Heroes and the idea of heroism haven't only fallen to the antihero and tabloid-caricature status that the artists and organizers of "Heroic Painting," at the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM), suggest. They've become the reamed-out victims and wistful survivors depicted in "Hospice," the photography show that sits just across the museum's Steele Gallery.

The separate organizers of these two very different exhibitions obviously didn't plan this pairing. But one couldn't ask for a better glimpse of the art world's view of moral poles. Here, victims are heroes, tragedy is triumph, suffering is divine, and profit is pain. All of the prominent people turn out to be bullies and worse, and genuine deeds and grandiose poses are interchangeable.

This is particularly true of the 16 works in "Heroic Painting," organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, in Winston-Salem. Most of the show's eight artists mimic outmoded styles of history painting. But only in manner and style. The exhibition's wall notes point out that the artists have replaced heroic painting's traditional views from the tower with a "history from below." It's the revenge of the small fries, the downtrodden. Some of the artists take the tongue-in-cheek approach. Others assume the sincerity expected of those attempting to set general or personal history straight. Like the historical paintings they parrot, their works are filled with symbolism.

Bo Bartlett's "Civil War," depicting the imagined aftermath of the Battle of Nashville, features a woman cradling a dying black union soldier in a "Pieta" (Michelangelo) pose. Julie Heffernan assumes a variety of well-known classical and artistic poses. In one painting, she's Astyanax, the doomed son of the Greek hero Hector and his wife Adramache--cherubic innocence in the face of murder. In another, she's Diego Velasquez's Infanta Maria Teresa, yet playing Coriolanus, whose refusal to parade his war wounds before the crowd cost him his hope of becoming a senator. Heffernan has no such reluctance. There she stands with LBJ candor, a bandage covering a scar from a tubal pregnancy--a badge of feminine courage and honor.

Lawrence Gipe adopted the better-living-through-industry aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s to go after the Nazi war machine--a little late. And Walton Ford dips into a banjo-plucking aesthetic of the 1800s to exorcise the guilt of ancestral slaveholders and beat up poor John James Audubon.

The comedians of the show are Mark Tansey and the Russian team Komar and Melamid (K&M). Tansey essentially is a cartoonist who paints sophisticated and expensive one-liners. In his "The Construction of the Grand Canyon," for instance, shirtsleeved academics are hacking the great void out of the wordy sediment of French-inspired deconstructism. And his "Homage to Frank Lloyd Wright" depicts Wright's Guggenheim Museum as the turret of the Monitor in its Civil War battle--a cultural one here--with the Merrimac. In this case, the blues and grays are artists against architects.

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, former Russian dissidents who came to the United States in the early 1980s, paint as a team in mock Soviet Socialist Realism. Their parodies of old Soviet realities play up the potato-skin drabness of the originals. But their realities reflect the darkness and regret brought on by years under the boot. Their symbols are of extinction, but with an ironic affectionate twist. The charming little green Godzilla in "Bolsheviks Returning Home After a Demonstration" reminds us that there's nothing cuter, more lovable than a carnivore who's gone for good--presumably the early Soviet rulers and idea.

This is funny stuff. But it's also extraordinarily nostalgic. The nostalgia extends beyond K&M. All of the paintings in this show have a wistfulness--perhaps a longing for the pre-electronic age, when the "heroic painting" after which many of these works were modeled was more than simply an ironic side show. It was radio, television and the Internet all wrapped into one. It could say something authentic about history. Even if the story it told was a lie, it was a compelling one that made its audience sit up and take notice.

A similar struggle for authenticity comes through in the "Hospice" photographs. The struggle has less to do with the subject itself than with the shifting purpose and values of documentary photography, which is also losing its place and authority to other media or combinations of media. A joint effort by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the National Hospice Foundation, the show amounts to an advertisement for hospices' efforts to help people die in comfortable surroundings. The five photographers, whose work was commissioned for this show, took a variety of approaches to the subject, ranging from the intrusive to the tangential.

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