Kenny Cole’s “Parabellum (Prepare for War)” now on view at the University of Maine Museum of Art is not a typical show for Maine – or anywhere, for that matter.
A hallmark of modern and contemporary art, along with originality, is that it brings and bares its own systems of meaning and context. In other words, contemporary art wants to explain itself instead of having us rely on so many assumptions.
One problem is that you are often on your own with a work of contemporary art. If you don’t get it, it’s tough to tell what isn’t up to snuff – you, or the work. And, yes, some artists take advantage of this when their work doesn’t actually have any significant content to convey.
“Parabellum” does not have this problem. It might look overwhelming – it is an unusual and extremely dense installation packed into a small space – but it quickly begins telling many stories all at once. Despite the visual tsunami, the depth makes it worth wading through.
“Parabellum” comprises four score and two paintings hung in grids on the walls of the small but handsome Zillman Gallery. The paintings, however, are actually boxes that swing open (and to handle them is to transcend the typical please-do-not-touch museum experience) with painting, sculptural surfaces and poetry within them so that one surface suddenly becomes three that relate to each other and the works around them.
Cole’s boxes are covered with 1890s newspapers and then painted with only red and white gouache in his signature style. The outside images largely make heraldic references to Civil War battle flags and insignias. The interiors lean towards topographical battlefield maps on the left and fragments of poetry on the right.
While poetry fragments often make for some of the most challengingly opaque bits of language imaginable, in this case they quickly lead the viewer to understand the entire installation presents a fragmented and poetic perspective – which is a relief considering its overall density.
Cole created “Parabellum” through a fascinating and fictional back story. While the story offers focus and depth, it reflects more on Cole’s integrity and ambition than on the viewer’s experience. By choice, I first wandered through “Parabellum” without having read the available texts about the show, and I found it was more effective and enjoyable when the work was allowed to wash over me unfettered by explanation.
If, unlike me, you enjoy projecting art onto back-story narratives, then Cole’s fictional character, Bains Revere, a Civil War veteran and outsider artist might really appeal to you. It is interesting, for example, how the pacifistic soldier has a relationship with actual Mainer Hiram Maxim, who invented the machine gun.
The exhibition copy also posits that “Parabellum” engages in “culture-jamming,” a practice generally associated with anti-consumerist efforts to subvert corporate and media culture. It does to a certain extent, but to read the installation in this way requires a whole series of leaps by the viewer about things like the commodification of war and the Confederate brand, whereas culture-jamming generally seeks to topple assumptions. While this explanation provides a moral pathway for Cole’s own inspiration and tactics, it may create more cognitive dissonance than the typical viewer wants to take on.
To approach “Parabellum” unawares, you very well could take the show as a false artifact – either believing Revere was real or that the paintings and texts were genuinely produced by an aging Civil War veteran. Well, mostly – the poetic fragments (gorgeous laments of the tragedy of war) contain a few anachronisms such as a reference to the atomic bomb.
The texts inside the paintings are from the poems of Chris Crittenden. While I was trying to understand the poetic fragments, I read them out loud. It was only then that their tenderly plaintive lusciousness (imagine the tears of a beloved child) was fully – and movingly – revealed.
With “Parabellum,” Cole challenges us to ask if we Americans can ever end our seemingly incessant march to war. He inspires us to question the weapons industry. He asks us to find perspective and common ground in our ever-divided country. And Cole does this from the shared moral platform of compassion for a veteran’s perspective.
“Parabellum” might be the densest work of art I have encountered by a Maine artist, and yet it flows with easily understood compassion and caring within a difficult national dialogue.
What underlies “Parabellum” is a deep commitment to the Maine art ethic. While Cole is never precious or fussy with his brush, his hand reveals itself as no less solid and skilled as it is stylized. His commitment to clarity over panache works, and it comes across as a genuine and humble dedication to wanting what is right and good for all of us.
Freelance writer Daniel Kaney is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: