“The War on Peace” at Waterfall Arts in Belfast is an exhibition featuring two of Maine’s nationally acclaimed artists: Robert Shetterly and Alan Magee.
It is a powerful show. It’s tough but rewarding, and its critical outrage is thoughtfully poised.
Shetterly is best known for “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” a painting series he began with a portrait of Rosa Parks just after 9/11. Magee is best known for his hyper-realist paintings of sea-polished beach pebbles or paint boxes seen from a straight-down viewpoint.
Yet some of Magee’s work takes an homage approach akin to Shetterly’s portrait-with-paragraph style. Magee will center a photograph of an admired person (often an artist) and surround that with pebbles, pencils, brushes or other associated objects, or so it looks — the images are painted in a trompe l’oeil style.
While none of Magee’s homage paintings are in the show, they help related his work to Shetterly’s. Magee’s works function psychologically through associations and personal values. It is deeply humanistic and ultimately based on subtle associations and psychological connections that garner their strength well below easy word or banter. His heartfelt respect for people is deep and meaningful.
Shetterly’s Americans, on the other hand, are honorifically presented in straightforward, well-painted and unadorned realistic paintings in which he has scratched their names and either or a quote by them or a quip about them. He could not be more clear about his connections to the 180 people he has painted so far.
Magee’s work in “The War,” however, follows an approach he began in the 1980s, and has continued as a parallel mode to his better-known works.
His strongest works here are his monotypes of white oval faces on black paper. They represent deep psychological states which, in the context of war, are anything but light. The disembodied faces float like weathered, wounded and war-wizened souls ranging from philosophically plaintiff to traumatically horror-struck.
Both Shetterly and Magee are patient and masterful craftsman. This makes “The War” unlike most activist art insofar as it could not be less shrill or more sober.
There are 10 of Shetterly’s Americans — from the late Samantha Smith (“Nothing could be more important than not having a war”) to Camilo Mejia, a Nicaraguan-born American soldier who refused to return to Iraq after his first six-month tour of combat duty. Mejia, who filed as a conscientious objector, was convicted of desertion and jailed.
Confident, proud and personable, Mejia is shown in three-quarters pose against a solid red ground. His quote reads: “I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead fulfilled my duty as a soldier. What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions?”
There are about 50 related works on view at Waterfall Arts, including a very handsome small show of large high-focus, formal portrait photographs of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans in Maine by Harlan Crichton.
While this is not part of the Magee and Shetterly show, it casts an important light of sympathy to the veterans on their work as a whole. Shetterly’s images of people such as Pfc. Bradley Manning and Cindy Sheehan make this point, but with Crichton’s crystal-clear but troubled waters, these works all seem to rise together on a tide of dedicated social conscience.
Most striking in the show is the way Shetterly’s and Magee’s works interact. While Shetterly’s Americans speak with a respectful prosaic clarity, their proximity to Magee’s works lends credence to their fundamental concern about the ineffable costs of war.
Yet Magee’s work benefits even more from the partnership. In the context of Shetterly’s articulate portraits, Magee’s subject is clear — whereas one piece alone is not enough to clarify the source of its desiccated misery.
Besides the faces — including the gorgeously bleak giant tapestry “Silence II” — Magee’s works include creepy assemblage pictures in which children’s relics such as dolls or a cap gun have been ground into the sandy surface as though made instantly ancient by the vicissitudes of war. He has similar works of bleakly stilted doll-like figures mounted on repurposed panels; these seem to represent the disturbing effects of war on children’s souls.
Magee’s other main body of work in “The War” includes collaged figures of 1980s Wall Street types in the style of the great political collagist Hannah Hoch. While these seem to lead away from the show’s center, they deftly condemn the military agency of corporate America.
“The War” is a genuine achievement, and it’s probably something that could have only happened away from Maine’s commercial galleries or largest art institutions. The community setting of Waterfall Arts works.
If you admire or doubt the ability of artists to take on difficult questions of societal ethics, you must see this show. The artists’ powerful achievement is about something beyond partisan politics: Human morality.
“The War” is an important show which, like its subject, should not be forgotten.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: