By Paul Madonna
There are few subjects more volatile than race and war, and it’s impossible to think anyone is without feelings or opinions on either. So how do we approach them in art? How do we avoid cliches, grandstanding or didacticism? How do we reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable as days continue to pass and human relations stay mired in precarious negotiation and inevitable confrontation?
Rodney Ewing takes on this challenge in Public Safety, his debut solo exhibition at Frey Norris Gallery, by disarming the loaded without raising a fist, or provoking one to raise a fist in return.
This is no easy task. It would be easy to be rective, easy to be shocking. The challenge of these subjects is to actively move toward and offer a perspective without entering the fray of contradiction by focusing, documenting, and sharing experience and resolve within the self. Communicating such movement is more subtle and complex than telling stories of, “I once believed in war and hate now I don’t,” and must articulate shifts that are often as elusive to the person changing as our awareness is to sprouting of buds on a tree – we remember the limbs being bare, then one day notice full bloom.
This is where Rodney succeeds. Through his desire for movement in thought and heart, his willingness to explore the abstract realm of personal and public emotion, and his study of the subsequent reactions and changes within himself, he discovers his experience, documents his growth, and, most of all, shares his resolve.
Rodney defines his movements as Disarm, Countermeasure, and Meditation, and realizes these states by choosing iconic symbols, then humanizing them. First, he takes symbols such as a target silhouettes and revolver barrels, images so ubiquitous in our daily lives that they no longer remind us of violence, but of common goods, linked not just to our notions of safety and protection, but to things that have always been. It’s his awareness of these objects’ power – or rather his reawareness, after his recognition of his own desensitization to their power – that allows him to so purely snatch these symbols from their context and process them. In his own words, he set out to “Examine these devices and methods, and re-structure them as tools that will actually provide us with a true means of security.”And he achieves this through what appears at first to be distortion, but on inspection is actually co-existence. Instead of attempting to halt the blow of these symbols, he works with their momentum, moving alongside, altering their course along the way. This happens only through patience and observation, knowing that to seek resolve for oneself is first to understand the nature of that which causes you harm.
The boldest result of this process is Rodney’s use of appropriated body scans. Used in airports to detect concealed weapons, Rodney describes these scans as “work(ing) so well that they can see underneath an individual’s clothing and give airport security personnel an anatomically correct version of what a person looks like. For some, this device breaches their sense of security more than it helps them to feel safe.”
Here, he once again follows the momentum of the imagery he’s chosen, but rather than attempt to break the device’s power through alteration, he simply presents the images as they are. Similar to the photos leaked from Abu Ghraib of hooded prisioners, their mere existence is truth laid bare. In these scans, the ghostly light and corpse-like view of the subjects elicits a gut emotion, a seizing, and Rodney knows this. He knows the power of these images, and his choice to leave them untouched demonstrates his awareness of our society’s current relationship with those powers. Body scans are not a part of our every day lives, we haven’t yet integrated them as unquestionable tools. Had Rodney diverted these images, stripped them of their energy, disarmed them as he did with the target and gun barrel symbols we are so accustomed to seeing, we wouldn’t have the basis for understanding his need to ground these images. Because he works with each symbol relative to its unique individual force, we perceive the clarity of his intent to process purely, not only for himself, but for an audience as well.
Taking on realities such as violence and war can so easily provoke sanctimony and division, uncertainty and fear, that the challenge of these subjects in thought, conversation and art can be overwhelming and leave many of us not knowing where to begin or end. The success of Rodney Ewing’s Public Safety in traversing these areas is two-fold. First, his unifying process of patient exploration into endless fields of rhetoric, emotion and struggle, both outside and within the self is simple, clear and profound. And second, by choosing symbols both similar in their relation to his subjects and different in their current perceived status, he demonstrates how adeptly he can apply his process. Rodney has succeeded in not only moving himself through difficult territory, but in offering us his resolve in a concise way that allows the viewer to move past violence and begin an exploration on their own.
Paul Madonna is the artist and creator in the widely recognized “All Over Coffee” syndicated comic-strip for The San Francisco Chronicle.