The Des Moines Art Center's Print Gallery is filled with an excellent portfolio of work by Jake & Dinos Chapman, Etchasketchathon. Yes, it is built on a foundation of shocking imagery, but no, you may not dismiss the work for its quality of spectacle. In fact, the main components of the gross and spectacular in this body of work are so integral to its importance that, after a little time is spent with them, they feel almost underplayed. You should go see it.
I'll describe the works briefly, detail my first thoughts on seeing these works, then unpack the experience just a little. The simplest take away is that humanity is comfortable living side by side with absolute horror. We all do it every day, and feign innocence in order to preserve the lives we live within our picket fences. So there's that old saw. Again. It cuts if we look at it long, and then we return to our daily somethings. The prints are capable of gut-wrenching, but are also digestible and ignorable. That they balance on that line is their greatest strength.
These are small prints in an approachable and pleasant scale. They use imagery copied from coloring books, modified to contain all the horrors the Chapmans needed to include with invention and perverse delight. The drawing character is one of cartoon brushwork with washes; a heightened and accomplished sense of tone, contrast, gesture, and composition. The image areas are set off from the paper with a tan solid that evokes the discoloration of old newsprint. These are the coloring books found in grandparents' basements on bored stretches of holidays.
Initial thoughts, in order, were the following. Why are these prints? Why are they a photogravure process? The drawing in these is actually quite nice. For crying out loud, what do the Chapmans have against kids? I don't see any "lite bites" here. It's exceptionally nice that the Art Center was able to provide the referential prints from Goya's Disasters of War.
There are a number of reasons these are prints. And that works in tandem with the imagery. First, consider that Goya's Disasters of War was derived in part from his first-hand witness. Using the latest aquatint process to create multiples (remembering that in years past printmaking was a democratic media, capable of wide dissemination, and photogravures were widespread as a process used in newspapers), they can be seen as a sort of war correspondence. Oversimplifying the point, one could assert that the Chapman's are using Goya as a stand in for Anderson Cooper.
During Amy Worthen's short talk in the gallery (Ms. Worthen is the curator), she mused on whether the childish imagery was a means of trivializing the atrocities depicted. Worthen asserts in the show catalog that
. . .white hot feeling has not been an acceptable mode of discourse in contemporary art. Many artists are uncomfortable overtly expressing heartfelt sentiment in art (and viewers can feel discomfort looking at it) so they prefer to communicate obliquely. While some artists express their ideas through irony, others try to shock viewers with images that scold, bewilder, unnerve, and offend.
She is correct, and hits on something that is, in my opinion, an ongoing weakness in much contemporary art. However, I believe the role of children is extraordinarily complex for the Chapmans, and is in no way trivial. That these are children committing atrocities, that they are rendered in childish, playful ways, and that they exist in stark contrast to our expectations for cutesy consumption is, indeed, their beguiling spectacle. Yet it is a mistake to forget to ask, "What if they're children for a reason?" Now, it's likely there's more going on than I know. Worthen suggested during her gallery talk that contemporary British art is "full of nasty children." And I have no clue why Jake Chapman might suggest that the death of a toddler is a good thing for society. But I can say with certainty that a strong case exists for reading these prints as a flat description of what every single human in Western society does every single day. We paint and doodle and stroll through the woods entirely aware that somewhere on our planet someone very much like us is doing something absolutely horrific to someone else who is also very much like us.
The Chapman's "Fucking Hell," for example, assembles tiny sculptures depicting Goya's full Disasters of War in vitrines laid out in plan to form a swastika. Viewers walk in and around and among the awfulness, noting that there is one person–Hitler–off to the side painting away. I propose that the swastika is not there as a shock tactic, nor as its assumed symbology. By forcing viewers to navigate the shape, they are in a small way integrating with it. They become complicit. Bystanders using violence as entertainment. Since no one can own such a space for themselves, we protest ignorance and impotence. "They are just sculptures. There's glass in the way. The people being killed for ten cents a day are on the other side of the world and my T-shirt came from a different factory." We are as innocent and blameless as children.
Following the notion of democratizing the media I continued to wonder why these are prints. The need to strengthen the allusion to Goya's work through a parity of media is sufficient, yet the undeniable connection to the candy consumption of the news cycle would be served better if these were animated Web comics. Form the standpoint of a practicing artist, it's easy to decide that editioned etchings belong in the realm of Capital-A Art, and moreover, they can be sold. These reasons are also sufficient. Conceptually, however, they fall short. Since it's nice to give people the benefit of the doubt let's assume that the choice was made to strengthen the concept. In contemporary culture, these prints cannot be consumed without consequence. They are finely printed things that are framed and hung and handled with reverence. Simultaneously, then, they are becoming totems of that which society has declared worthy of reverence (this blithe activity of dismemberment and intestinal eruption), they cloak themselves in the mantle of Art thereby allowing them to operate such that every choice in their production is subject to question, and they remain signifiers of the unthinking consumption of the news cycle and entertainment.
In other words, the reference to Goya's print series in both content and media establishes simultaneously a reference to the accelerating news cycle and lends a gravitas that forces a reconsideration of the childish imagery as a choice of intention and symbology, and not as simply a shocking dichotomy with pop appeal.
There is another matter. I mentioned the Chapman's row with The Observer over his distasteful comments about the abduction, torture, and murder of a toddler by two preadolescent boys. A recent study showed that people are more likely to value the work made by artists who are perceived as eccentric. Off-color comments are likely a matter of the artist's personality and preference to provoke, while maybe being more glib than intended. However, their passion and longstanding obsession with the Disasters of War and similar imagery is not the sort of thing someone puts down before going to dinner. I am haunted by the notion that these brothers will die, and the world will find out that they really were serial killers. That this is all not critique (and there truly is no hint of a call to action in these–they are a looking glass only, though one which leans heavily on the anti-life distortion of chirality), but a guilty confession that they took perverse pleasure from selling to a bunch of dim-witted millionaires and showing to scores of museum-going dupes. It's a silly thought and an irresponsible accusation. But it feels plausible enough to recognize, again, that sense of complicity and an unwillingness to intercede. This is when my stomach begins to turn. And I wonder if I can sanction such works hanging in a public place. (I can. These are important and well worth anyone's time and reflection.) Can I continue to live my life without constantly acting against tragedy, and live with the idea that something violent and horrific can act as entertainment and be justified simply because it is also art. And I know that my plan for this evening is to watch a performance of King Lear. And when Cordelia dies, I will cry my eyes out.