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Sudden impact

Beautiful art permeates "A History of Violence" exhibition

“Female Target” mixed media by Kristin T. Woodward. Photo courtesy South Puget Sound Community College

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It might be a stretch to say there is beautiful art in the exhibition "A History of Violence" at South Puget Sound Community College. But that depends on your idea of what constitutes beauty. The paintings in this show are rough. The colors are harsh; some might even be considered garish and clashing. And the subject matter is highly disturbing. Violence is ugly, and therefore it makes sense that art about violence should appropriately be somewhat less than pretty. At the very least, it should call into question commonly-held ideas about beauty. So I repeat: there is beautiful art in this exhibition. A lot of it. And its impact is as sudden and as harsh as a pistol shot.

Three artists are represented: John Adkins, Associate Dean and Professor of Art at Miami Dade College; Kristen Woodward, Professor of Art at Albright College; and David Cordes, Professor of Chemistry at Pacific University. Both Adkins and Woodward are showing mixed-media paintings about gun violence, while Cordes is showing 25 oil paintings of various sizes that have to do with subjects such as chemical warfare.

Adkins' paintings line the righthand side wall. Each is called "Target" with a name, for examples, "Jacqueline Target" and "John Target." They are paintings of the kinds of target one sees in police firing ranges on television shows. Each features a black silhouette of a person with a face and hands collaged from colorful cut shapes. The hands are holding pistols. The viewer is confronted with using everyday people, perhaps their friends or neighbors -- albeit heavily armed -- for target practice. And why not? Gun violence is so common that any John or Jacqueline can be a mass murderer. That's what the artist seems to be saying.

Woodward's paintings are so similar to Adkins' that I at first thought they were his. She, too, is showing a series of eight target paintings. Hers have such titles as "Female Target," "Reading Target," "Double Target" and "Comanche Target," which is collaged and painted images of Native Americans from history. Each features a large central figure with many smaller images. They differ from Adkins' in that they are much more complex with many more smaller figures and the inclusion of images resplendent with historical narrative. The painting is much more expressive, with large strokes and many transparencies, and each painting hangs from the ceiling, making them more like police targets on moveable lines. All that's lacking are the bullet holes.

Cordes' paintings fill all but one wall of the gallery. They are narrative and illustrative. Painted in bright, almost electric colors, they combine words and images to tell horrifying stories of true events. There is one, for instance, of the chemical plant leak in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands of people and injured almost half a million. And there is one titled "Clara und Fritz" -- sounds like a German love story, and in a way it is, but a tragic love story. Clara Immerwahr was a pacifist married to Fritz Haber, a chemist who promoted chemical warfare. In protest, she killed herself with his gun. Such are the stories illustrated in Cordes' paintings, which are painted in a style like a marriage of circus posters and lurid graphic novels.

All of the artworks in this show have that same lurid quality. I think of how shocking Pop Art was when it first appeared with subject matter and style never before considered worthy of serious artistic consideration, and I am reminded of Goya's "Third of May" and Picasso's "Guernica." "A History of Violence" is not an easy exhibition to view, but it is fascinating, and an important show that should be seen.  

"A History of Violence," noon-4 p.m., Monday-Friday, through Dec. 8, South Puget Sound Community College, Kenneth J Minnaert Center for the Arts Gallery, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia, spscc.edu

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