Art on the Borderline

Who are we? Where are we? There are plenty of reasons to wonder, especially since the reference points we usually rely upon to situate ourselves are so easily mistaken for others that may lead us astray. What happens when we step outside our usual environments, only to find that we cannot go back, or that once we come back nothing seems the same? The decision to enter unfamiliar territory means accepting the possibility of losing our way. Rather than pose questions that might shatter our illusion of normalcy, we would just as soon pretend that we're sure of our surroundings, and sure of ourselves.

Internationally known artists Leon Golub and Adrian Piper, however, examine contemporary issues that many people are reluctant to address. In the process, they challenge us to recognize something about ourselves and our society. A selection of Golub's recent drawings and paintings, as well as Piper's 1988 video installation "Cornered," inaugurate the reopening of the Rice University Art Gallery (former the Sewall Art Gallery). These artists work in radically different modes, but share an activist stance: both reveal the mechanisms of power and vulnerability by stripping away layers of aesthetic and behavioral pretension.

Piper induces a reaction in the viewer by describing a predicament and insisting that, whether conscious of the fact or not, the public shares it with her. She seeks to usurp the audience's power as viewers by questioning, in the most reasonable of tones possible, their notions of race, sex and class. For his part, Golub confronts power where it is both dark and vulnerable, then puts us right up against it, even rubs our noses in it. Golub reminds us that power slips and slides from war rooms to the streets and into the living room.

Among American activist artists today, Golub and Piper seem the ones with the most complex yearning for community, and with the most acute awareness of its aborted character in modern society. For both artists, territory is ill-marked and its frontiers and extent unclear. Golub and Piper are reporters of a sort: they report on the nature of certain events, on the state of society, how we use force, how we act out our roles. Both artists aim to penetrate our layers of illusion and self-deception as far as possible.

Golub and Piper aren't presenting a theater of the absurd, but that of reality -- the world as is. And neither of them is fooling around. Piper corners us in a dialogue that we can only respond to through action. And Golub's men and women, often half human/half beast, are literally and figuratively up against the wall.

Moral penetrations have been at the core of Golub's work for some four decades. Born in 1922 in Chicago, Golub was the leading force in a figurative expressionist movement that distinguished the stylistic independence of that city from New York. Golub spent most of the early 1960s in Europe, then settled in Manhattan, where his work evolved from heroic battling male figures inspired by Roman art to overtly political reactions to the Vietnam War. Huge paintings showed anonymous soldiers engaged in atrocities and gave inklings of Golub's fascination with the "look" of powerful men. Employing the New Yorkish big-scale picture, Golub's subsequent "Mercenaries" and "Interrogations" series aimed to peel back the ugly layers of criminality. And the most horribly intimate form of criminality is torture, practiced or condoned by many -- countries, agencies and militant causes -- but admitted by none.

In Heretic's Fork, one of the works on display at Rice, Golub includes us in the peculiar social drama of torture; we almost imagine ourselves as the protagonists to whom the victim reacts. By dint of scale, frontality, eye contact and body language, the image seems less on the wall than in the room with us. An agitated display of testosterone brushwork both constructs and decomposes a pictorial no man's land: a double-sided red fork is secured under the victim's chin and into his chest. The gallery notes explain that this form of torture was done publicly, with dogs running around and people watching.

Indeed, Golub shoves the head of a huge black dog with teeth bared right in our faces, then directs our view upward into the flared nostrils of both canine and victim. For the most part, however, Golub's recent works are less political and more socially activated. The images he creates range from quick and linear -- such as the animated, if frenetic, male who gives us the finger in the small drawing Smartass -- to the fuller, more detailed group of leering men in the huge, free-hanging canvas, Beware of Dog. Savage dogs, it seems, are everywhere in this show. Golub says they're mostly irregulars, on their own, the leftovers, angry mercenary dogs -- street dogs. "There are dogs that don't belong just as there are humans who don't quite belong," he says.

While possessing a kind of demonic beauty in its spare and shimmering dark brown field, Beware of Dog also conveys the nervous, spasmodic nature of urban life. Here, three men gaze at a trio of women leaning out of a window. At the bottom of the canvas, in the space separating the two groups, appears the white outline of a ferocious, salivating dog -- a ghostly image drawn spontaneously, as if it had sprung from the artist's unconscious. Beware of Dog is written across the bottom in red, much like crude graffiti.

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