Washington painter Phyllis Plattner’s semi-classical pictures depict bombings, shootings and decapitations. Argentine-bred glass artist Silvia Levenson’s wall sculptures simulate baby clothes in bright, nursery school hues. Yet both women’s work carries the same theme: war.
Two floors apart at the American University Museum, their art ponders historical violence in ways that are deliberate yet immediate. Although their methods and inspirations are quite different, Plattner’s “Gods of War!” and Levenson’s “Identidad” are equally vivid and personal.
Levenson was not only in Argentina in 1976, but also pregnant when people were “disappeared” and their babies awarded to government loyalists. Plattner was visiting Mexico’s Chiapas state in 1994 when Mayan rebels known as Zapatistas began a revolt against the national government. She began collecting locally made dolls of masked Zapatista fighters, but it wasn’t until five years later, when she was living in Florence, that the dolls entered her work.
Plattner began reimagining Italian masterpieces with the dolls in place of religious and mythological figures. Some of those works are included in this exhibition, but the painter didn’t fully engage her subject until she began emulating Renaissance altar pieces that group multiple scriptural scenes in gold-framed symmetrical arrangements.
Within this ornate format, Plattner incorporated notable pictures by such bloody-minded maestros as Caravaggio. But while Plattner’s compositions are derived from 14th- to 17th- century Italy, she doesn’t quote only from that time and place. She pairs renderings of biblical murder and martyrdom with Goya’s well-known depiction of a Napoleonic-era firing squad and Picasso’s even more famed “Guernica.” Plattner also roves beyond Europe, incorporating Asian and Meso-American images of battle and warriors. All are rendered in close approximations of their original styles, whether Japanese woodblock prints or Picasso’s cubism.
It may be the black-and-white “Guernica,” details of which feature in several of the multi-part paintings, that led Plattner to incorporate photographs. She uses oil paints and brushes to replicate iconic snapshots from World War II, the Vietnam conflict and more recent cataclysms. Separated by gold-leaf borders are the entrance to Auschwitz, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, the World Trade Center towers ablaze, an abused prisoner at Abu Ghraib and African child soldiers.
Many of these images are instantly recognizable, yet Plattner doesn’t allow them to overpower her overall compositions. Arranged into suites, the paintings pair infamies across eras, matching romanticized legend to stark photojournalism. “Chronicles of War/Heads and Hands” is a fugue of horrific wounds and deaths. In “Chronicles of War/Moments,” a dying St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, looks away from the corpse of a lynched African American man.
One interesting effect of such juxtapositions is to make visceral the suffering that Christian art traditionally presents as spiritual. Pious viewers may object, but in Plattner’s paintings no kinds of torture and killing appear more exalted than others.
To make these multifaceted works, the artist mastered many styles and techniques, including the woodworking necessary for the elaborate frames. Such complex pieces can’t be made quickly, so the evolution of Plattner’s style — and outlook — is inevitably slow. But it seems that her more recent paintings seek a balance between war and peace. Although they’re still clustered with images of killing and mourning, some panels are devoted to birds, cherubs or serene skies. The news from the battlefield remains dreadful, but there are other things to behold.
From a certain angle, Levenson’s “Identidad” seems more cheerful than Plattner’s work. More than 100 colored-glass bibs, bloomers and pairs of socks line a long, white wall, evoking the love elicited and hope inspired by the very young. On the other side of the gallery, however, several dozen glass knives dangle over a photo of two young girls — the artist and her sister, standing in for both a later generation and an entire nation.
The ominous blades are the show’s only visual representation of violence. Two videos explain the fates of the disappeared and the children stolen from their families, as well as the campaign of the Grandmothers of the Plaza be Mayo. (They’ve helped identify 116 of some 500 babies born while their mothers were imprisoned between 1976 and 1983.) Levenson’s work is less outraged than pensive, musing on the loss of such children as the girl in “She Flew Away,” which consists of just a swing and a pair of shoes, both made of glass.
That material is suitably ambiguous: solid but translucent, heavy yet fragile. Levenson’s glass garments catch the light in a lively way, yet are stiff and unmoving, and without bodies to animate them. As clothing for actual children, of course, kiln-cast socks and pants are useless. But as symbols for missing persons, they are poignantly both present and absent.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/museum.
Dates: Through March 15.