If the so-called “greatest generation,” those that fought in World War II, have mostly passed on, their children, the pre-boomers born just before and during that conflict are still around. Their memories of that period are filtered through the lens of childhood — a lens that magnifies and dramatizes emotions felt at the time — and overlaid by the black-and-white documentary footage of the home front as well as various battlefields. Their recollected war is a epic tale at the core of which a felt intimacy radiates outward — the world cataclysm is forever as small as a day in the life of a child. Scottish-born artist Tom Duncan’s exhibition, Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache — on display at Andrew Edlin Gallery (May 9 – June 21, 2014) — eloquently expresses the power of these primal images and sensations.
Born in a mining village in Scotland in 1939, Duncan spent his early childhood there until emigrating to the United States, specifically the Bronx, in 1945. Like London and Coventry, Scotland, too, was targeted by German bombers. In a group of mixed media pieces (paint, wood, enamel) titled the “Burning Bomber Series,” the artist provides purposefully crude depictions of German warplanes — the flat yet detailed drawings are immediately recognizable as the handicraft of schoolboys (at least schoolboys who grew up fascinated by the military). Enhancing the impression of a childish hand at work are the flames that dutifully spring from the wings and tail of nearly every bomber; these are dying warbirds, their missions thwarted by the RAF or flak gunners. Of course, that’s how a frightened youngster might wish it so.
The desire finds explicit expression in “Die Nazi Swine,” a mixed media piece depicting a boy in short-pants firing lightening-like red bolts of flame at attacking planes. His weapon, though, is an upended stool whose four legs serve as gun barrels. The circumstances that inform the drama — just how does a four-year-old comprehend the phenomenon of aerial bombardment, not to mention the threat of invasion — makes this typical male will-to-power fantasy especially poignant. The penciled sketch, “Burning Bomber Up in the Bronx,” presents an older kid wearing a holstered toy gun as he launches a model airplane that he’s set on fire. After the war, safely ensconced in the Bronx, the memory is already being re-enacted. The burning hobby-shop model can be understood as a precursor to Duncan’s eventual artistic practice.
Duncan’s evocations extend beyond his personal experience to include one of the war’s less valorous episodes. “The Execution of Private Slovik” is a theatrical-looking construction — a beaten-up footlocker sits on top a metal crate ringed round by toy soldiers; inside the footlocker visible through a glass window a diorama presents the moment of impact as a firing squad shoots its victim. The piece grapples with the case of Eddie Slovik, a private who was accused of desertion, court martialed, and executed in 1945. He was the only American soldier to meet this fate since the Civil War. Intricately detailed with insignia, badges, and a facsimile dogtag, the construction manages a realistic dynamism despite its near baroque excess of figures and ornamentation: a figure representing Slovik is caged as the based of the tower, surrounded by guards; the diorama at eye-level offers a snowy courtyard, German tanks in battle just outside its stone walls, and twelve riflemen firing their guns.
The bullets and their trajectories are physicalized by taut wire painted red and yellow that’s been affixed to the muzzles and runs straight to Slovik’s chest. Even though the materials in play are toys or toylike (or perhaps precisely because they are) the effect is unnerving. Unlike the flames and bullets from Duncan’s imagined scenes of combat, the destructive elements in this historical rendering produce a single death and therefor highlight the power of its isolation.
Slovik’s unheroic demise is personal in a way that deaths of the unseen German pilots are not. Duncan startles us with graphic detail (blood splatters are visible on the wall behind Slovik) even as we marvel at the meticulousness of the construction. The airborne angel and devil that attend the victim–they too wear military garb–are also mortally wounded and spikes of flame spring from their chests. The consciousness being ended is shown to be alive with moral tumult. The child-like attention to arranging toy soldiers is infused with a dire undertone; the means of evoking memory, Duncan suggests, might contend with its content.
The signature piece of the show — “Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache” — is one Duncan worked on for fifteen years. At a height of nearly eleven feet the interactive sculpture is composed of brightly colored industrial materials, toy trains, human figures, model planes, comic book pages, hand-drawn scenes, metal, glass, enamel, wheels, dials, and knobs — the overall effect fusing Hindu temple and Coney Island arcade. The four-sided piece allows viewers to step onto its base and operate the knobs and wheels that control lights (sunset and sunrise can be initiated), trains, and circular displays of Duncan’s drawings of remembered incidents (the “American Wheel of Life” and the “Scotland Wheel of Life”). They can also place their heads in close proximity to the four life-size representations of the artist’s own head and shoulders as seen from front, back, and sides.
The front view is an inverted mask that permits the view to peer through the artist’s eyes. We are invited to face up, so to speak, to the artist’s experience and work the levers of his and our perceptions.
A tape offers a soundtrack of vintage radio broadcasts and wartime songs that complement the inset dioramas of scenes realistic (the artist’s experiences on trains in the Bronx in the late 1940s) and oneiric (migraines characteristically afflict one side of the head and Duncan shows this as a blood-drenched Boschian domain populated by devils, bears, spiders, and skeletons, while a spike splits the brain to collide with the back of the eyeball). This quadrisected skull offers, at turns, childhood nostalgia and nightmare, melancholy and pain — all rendered with piercing sense of their corporeal habitation. Duncan’s construction might be thought of as a enactment of Giordano Bruno’s house of memory — a cranial-size structure in which the artist has staged and stored his past.
This is art whose fealty to autobiography extends to the anatomical; Duncan confers upon the familiar narrative notion of “interiority” a literalness that is darkly deterministic — are we trapped inside our skull, our lives playing out within its constricted space? The question hovers over much of this work. Yet the artist’s high-energy invention is always bracing, even elevating. The past, as William Faulkner said, isn’t even past. Duncan proves out this assertion by making childhood traumas and adult remembrance something touchable, open to manipulation, perhaps even changeable.
Portrait of Tom with a Migraine Headache continues at Andrew Edlin Gallery (134 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 21.