For two decades, Bradley McCallum, a conceptual artist, has employed a range of mediums to explore stories of social injustice and to make these concerns relevant for art. In his current project the artist investigates broadly, the absence and presence, actions and inactions, of the United States in the landscape of global conflict, and, more specifically, how hegemonic masculinity has impacted both conflict and international relations.
McCallum turns to painting and portraiture, genres that he often employs to frame an acute sensitivity to brutal realities and to portray a ‘collective social portrait’ of societies at war. Drawing on sources from photojournalism, the exhibition features oval ‘fire’ paintings of flag burnings and large-scale hyper real paintings of men accused of extraordinary acts of political violence.
Throughout history the flag of the United States has been symbolically burned, often in protest of the policies of the American government, both within the country and abroad. Harking back to colonial portrait conventions, McCallum’s oval ‘fire’ paintings are shimmering abstractions of flames, figures, and flags. His tantalizing and seductive images fuse time and place, past and present, real and symbolic to demonstrate how power and beauty (in this case that of national symbols) can also provoke condemnation and death.
As an artist who wants to make us think and question together, to draw us into a community of witnesses, and make us look—especially when we would rather look away—McCallum’s portraits demand that we attend to what they are about as well as how they look.
Large-scale portraits of powerful men, such as, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo (founder of a rebel army in the Congo), Nuon Chea (chief ideologist of the Khmer Rouge), and Slobodan Milošević (president of Serbia 1989 to 1997) do not indulge violence of form and content (rape, murder, ethnic massacre, torture, slavery). Instead, the longer one looks, the more their painterly attributes gather momentum, adding new force to an already intense subject matter.
For each of the subjects he represents, the artist created one brilliant hyper realistic color painting and one monochrome painting in the grisaille technique. The portrait, standing-in for a real individual, has a complex effect: the ‘thereness’ of each person challenges the viewer to engage in an unsettling duel with the gaze and presence of each of the men represented in the painting. Featured in the exhibition are several paintings from a much larger series McCallum created over the past two years that explores masculine configurations of power in war, international relations, and militarism. The complete series of twenty portraits will debut in The Hague, Netherlands, in July 2016.
Together the portraits of flag burnings and men accused of brutal acts in this exhibition portray a sense of collective Gewalt –the German word that carries the multiple meanings of force, (legitimate) power, domination, authority and violence– that has come to define our global reality. These are, paraphrasing Robert Bresson, powerful paintings and necessary images.
Bradley McCallum’s art is centered on bringing the disparate worlds of fine art and social practice together. His multifaceted projects include public actions, installations, videos, paintings, and sculpture. The artist himself has described his work as “an investigation into individual and collective social memory, responsibility, and actions.” Across these different media McCallum presents his distinct poetic and political sensibility towards media representations and social concerns. The artist produced a significant body of work inspired by American history and the legacies of race on contemporary American culture as part of the collaborative art team McCallum + Tarry. Their work was the subject of a major survey “Bearing Witness: Work by Bradley McCallum & Jacqueline Tarry” which was on view from 2009 to 2010 at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He has had several solo and group exhibitions since 1992 and work by the artist is found private and public collections worldwide. Born in 1966 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, McCallum trained at Virginia Commonwealth University and Yale University. He moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1997 where he continues to live and work.