Editors' pick

Ten Years After 9/11


Editorial Review

Artworks arise from terrorist attacks

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sept. 9, 2011

In the years between the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and today, there have been many attempts to make art in response to the tragedy. The resulting works have been sentimental, overblown, angry, poetic, polemic, maudlin, mysterious, clumsy, subtle and beautiful.

All of those qualities are on display at the Edison Place Gallery, where a showcase of work by 39 artists is marking this weekend's anniversary. Part of the multi-site 9/11 Arts Project, "Ten Years After 9/11" is, unsurprisingly, an uneven show. It is also, at times, kind of wonderful.

There's a common (and understandable) emotion echoing throughout the exhibition, which includes painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, video, paper- and printmaking, installation and sound. It's suggested in a lot of the works, but it manifests itself explicitly in several wall texts, in such related words and phrases as "irreversible," "nothing will ever be the same," "an attempt to reset memories" and "the American psyche was changed." It sets up a refrain of regret-tinged nostalgia for a lost and more innocent past that will never come again.

Exactly how do you make art about something so frustrating, intangible and forever out of reach?

Adam Lister figured out a way. His contribution is a pair of ridiculously simple - and virtually identical - sculptures, called "Silent Manipulation" and "Awkward and Peaceful." In each, the artist fastened a metal ring to the end of a length of string. The other end is tethered to a short wooden board. A short distance away is a taller wooden board, with a powerful magnet, strong enough to lift the ring. The thing is, the string isn't long enough to reach the magnet, so the ring floats in midair, like a dog straining against a leash.

Together, they're achingly beautiful conceptual works - about loss and longing - and among the best in the show.

They also show the truth of the adage that less is more. Other strong yet oblique pieces include Alison Hall's abstract pencil drawing "Diving Board With Cannon Ball for Icarus"; "Steps," an enigmatic sculptural platform - with two sets of steps leading, in effect, both toward each other and to nowhere - by the collaborative group Workingman Collective; photographer Frank Hallam Day's black-and-white "Pulaski Skyway With Twin Towers and Jersey Meadows"; and "Litany," a musical composition by Michael Pestel.

Pestel's haunting, slightly atonal score, which uses a musical "alphabet" to turn the names of victims of 9/11 into plinking notes, is a lovely contrast to the other sounds in the gallery, which include an intrusive, constantly looping video montage.

Tragedy calls for a light touch. The enormity of 9/11 doesn't need embellishment; rather, it needs understatement. As artist Brian Counihan writes, "We can only hope to find healing by recognizing the latency in ambiguity, and by searching for reconciliation through nuance."

Among the more soft-spoken works are several using handmade paper, including a moving artist's book by Helen Frederick that honors the death of a relative. (One of the show's co-curators, along with artist William Dunlap, Frederick is the founder of the Pyramid Atlantic center for the print-, paper- and bookmaking arts.)

One of those paper works, an abstraction called "Ecology," comes from Combat Paper Makers, a group of veterans who use their old military uniforms to create paper pulp. Also incorporating small American flags - whose shredded red stripes suggest bloodstains - the work makes a powerful visual statement.

But not as powerful as the conceptual one, which, like most of the work in the show, is about turning swords - and the artistic frustration with them - into plowshares.

The story behind the work

Although the date of Frank Hallam Day's "Pulaski Skyway With Twin Towers and Jersey Meadows" is listed as 2011 - and the print is, in fact, new - the original photograph was shot in 1995, as part of an artistic investigation of what the Washington photographer calls "humans and their water" along the East Coast.

Day's ramblings extended from Key West to Maine, with this particular image captured on the outskirts of Newark, under the New Jersey Turnpike. It's a view of the Gen. Pulaski Skyway receding in the distance, with luminous, marshy reeds in the foreground.

In the far background, almost completely shrouded by smog, are the twin towers. If you look hard enough, you'll see them, just to the right of where the water trails off, behind the pillars of the skyway.

They're far from obvious. In fact, if Day's title didn't mention them, you wouldn't even notice them. And yet we do, not so much because they were there when Day took the picture, but because we wish they still were.

-- Michael O'Sullivan