Art

Leon Golub’s Never-ending Fight Against the War Machine

Leon Golub, “Interrogation III” (1981) (all images courtesy Serpentine Galleries, image © READS 2015 )

LONDON — The conversation of war has dwindled. Aside from the likes of Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! there is little visible conversation about war other than one-sided drum-beating. Unwavering support for war has become commonplace. “The US media was already fairly homogeneous in the early 1980s: some fifty media conglomerates dominated all media outlets, including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, music, publishing and film.” Seems like a golden age compared to just six corporations dominating the U.S. media as of 2000. Vital journalism has been under attack for some time. You would at least hope you could get a rigorous debate for or against war in our legislative body, especially with the budget dedicated to the military. After all, Congress is the only one that can really declare war, right? Yet we are seven months into a campaign against ISIS and the US Congress has yet to debate its validity. Obama finally asked for authorization, but Congress remains silent.

Meanwhile, we continue our longest war in Afghanistan, coinciding with drone strikes and numerous other covert activities throughout the globe, all under the auspices of the “War on Terror,” officially started as “Operation Enduring Freedom” on 7 October 2001 with the United Kingdom. Less than 1% of Americans now serve in the military and little is being done to address the issue, plus Congress is represented by dwindling numbers of vets as well.

All of this and it is not getting any better in the Middle East. There’s delayed U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. U.S. withdraws from Yemen, as Saudi Arabia goes in. The U.S. bombing of Tikrit alongside Iran. This is making a mess even messier.

Installation view of ‘Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue’ at the Serpentine Galleries

So with a lack of vital discussion in the media or among our elected representatives, the art world must surely be advocating for this discussion. As a matter of fact, it has been difficult to research Western artists with any real motion toward a movement. Rather, small enclaves of like-minded people stoke their stances with confirmations of agreement on social media platforms and email petitions in the shadows of the internet. Where are all the anti-war activists and artists?

These are the questions that came to mind when viewing Leon Golub’s solo show, Bite Your Tongue, at the Serpentine Galleries. It struck me that Golub, who had been painting about political matters since the ’60s, brought conversations of dissent to the forefront. Today we may think of Edward Kienholz, Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, Maya Lin, Martha Rosler, Mona Hatoum, to name a few. But it is hard to find a movement with real resonance. Even when the media does discuss the on-going wars, our photo-journalistic images lack or are censored completely. In 1991 the Pentagon banned the media from taking pictures of the dead returning from war citing concern over family privacy. G.W. Bush made sure this ban was reinforced as we entered into war with Iraq. The ban was lifted in 2009, but has not changed much of the images we see on the news.

How these images are disseminated and discussed is vital to a prominent anti-war movement. We seem to close our eyes and not want to look at this imagery, for what can we do about it? How can we even begin an anti-war movement, let alone an anti-war discussion? Golub seems to manage. He dives right in and does not apologize. He eloquently states:

I think of myself as a kind of reporter; I report on the nature of certain events. I think of art as a report on civilization at a certain time. It tells about the confidence of hierarchies, how hierarchy is expressed: who is included and who is not. Assyrian art, for example, does not show the urbane sensibility of Renaissance art; its depiction of ritual and hieratic power is more raw. It is only today, in the wake of modernism, that you see antiheroic wielding so much imagistic power. Perhaps for the first time in history, with the exception of Goya and a few others, there is an art that does not celebrate state and church power. If I paint mercenaries, whatever else I am doing, I am not praising state power and the success of arms. I am reporting on the state of our society, how we use force and how men act out their roles. 

Leon Golub, “Gigantomachy II” (1966), acrylic on linen, 304.8 x 731.5 cm

The scene at the Serpentine Galleries creates a shift in our psyche. It reminds us of a time and an anti-war movement that seemed more front-and-center. Surrounded by lush greens and blues of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park in the spring, one approaches the former tea pavilion originally built in 1933–34. Emma Enderby brings together a vast trajectory of work in an intimate, quiet setting. Her curation of the show is mindful of both Golub and the audience. As a whole, a chronological story is told. The viewer experiences as Golub experienced war — as a reporter who took in the political world and analyzed it. With Golub, the viewer moves from victim to voyeur to participant, all while seemingly remaining partial — war and excessive abuses of power are atrocious.

There are two galleries that concentrate this energy. The first (at right) groups pieces from the mid–1960s to early ‘70s including “Gigantomachy II” (1966) and “Gigantomachy IV” (1967). We cannot help but feel under attack. These Vietnam War paintings envelop you as if you are the one being hunted in the bush. They culminate in movement and energy. The room is cold and silent; you can hear your breath and heartbeat. An ambush is imminent.

The second gallery (at center-back) groups pieces from the early 1980s and include “Mercenaries IV” (1980), “Interrogation III” (1981), and “White Squad IV (El Salvador)” (1983). These men are cold. Calculated. They are watching our every move as we peek in from the corner. Yet, it is as if we are in cahoots with them — maybe even directing them? Though these works relate directly to the horrors of American actions in Latin America in the 1980s, the images feel all too familiar. The viewers may ask themselves the old adage, “have we learned nothing from our past?” The answer seems overwhelmingly, “No.” There is just aggression. Behind closed doors and blatantly strutted in plain sight.

Golub reflects on this aggression:

[The] attitude of aggression … is reflected in my work: mercenaries strutting across the pages of history. These figures march across the canvas in a way that is as crude as the way American industry has moved across the globe in recent years, taking over the world’s economy. I’m interested in the idea of mercenaries and in covert activities, in governments that want to keep their hands clean. They create a space between themselves and the action by hiring the kinds of people necessary to carry out the job, and even if the ostensible protagonists aren’t Americans, they are surrogates for the American point of view. Most countries operate this way, of course, but we extend more powerful claims about who we are than most countries.

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Leon Golub, “Mercenaries IV” (1980)

The most resonating feeling from this exhibit that spans work from the 1950s to 2004 is the timelessness of it all. We could be walking around in Afghanistan, witnessing ISIS in Syria, Boko Haram in Central Africa, or the countless other places the Global War on Terror has brought us. The war to end all wars just ended war as we know it. Perpetual war is far more lucrative when the system has been built around it, especially if citizens remain ignorant of egregious actions done in their name.

Are we comfortable participating in the pictures Golub has laid bare for us? Is being complicit worse than being ignorant? What can we do? Golub takes action in by-way-of the studio. He is an activist. He brings us in visually. He is asking us to take some responsibility for these images. As citizens, debate may be all we have. Debate involves the sensitivity of informed participants to come together for the greater good of all, not just a few. We must continue to fight for vital conversations so we can move forward as an informed and sympathetic public. We must be better citizens.

How can artists contribute? Golub admits this is a tough predicament:

Where are the artists and polemics who can view Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia? Fitful efforts in respect to violent or near violent struggles in Europe, the near East, etc. The heroics in respect to the Algerian War in France or Vietnam in the United States? How much more difficult for artists today to lay claim to a conscience that cuts through the controls, hypocrisies and willful ignoring of events that one would rather not face up to, even as we are media-drenched in confrontational and/or collapsing situation.

Golub’s work asks us to open ourselves to see the bigger picture of the world around us and what is being done in our name. It will not be comfortable or convenient. Golub is right in saying, “I make certain claims about the paintings that people aren’t always willing to accept; one of them is that you’re in all the paintings too.”

Installation view
Installation view of ‘Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue’ at the Serpentine Galleries

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue continues at the Serpentine Galleries (Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA) through May 17. 

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