Satire is a powerful weapon that can cut like a knife. It deploys ridicule to expose the absurdities at the very foundation of our ideas, carrying the potential to cut through illusions and propaganda and awaken consciousness. In its most insurrectional and catalytic form, the power of satire can galvanize, foment opposition, protest and revolt.
That’s certainly the sentiment behind the work in Natasha Mayers’ War Chest series of paintings, which make up the bulk of Portland Zero Station Gallery’s exhibition “Tell It Slant: Our Military Love Affair” (until 13 may). But the show also raises questions for me about what makes satire work and what neutralizes it, as well as who is able to most effectively wield this visual equivalent of a “poison pen” to harness its full searing power. .
Schematically speaking, the show questions our glorification of war and conquest, and our fetishization of uniforms and military power. The title comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell the whole truth but tell it obliquely”, which argues that the truth must be delivered gently to avoid shocking and overwhelming the recipient by rejecting its indisputable truth.
This accurately describes Mayers’ approach to it. She depicts uniforms, medals and bodies in a cartoonish way using bright, cheerful colors that are easy to pick up. Our likely reaction is laughter at the ridiculousness of those sturdy, boxy, highly decorated outfits, which are so solemnly donned by a number of petty dictators and Napoleons. One grasps the void behind the purported power of these costumes, not least because most of them are not filled with a real human body, their powerless presence void of the animation and life that the wearer would bring to them.
Mayers employs a great deal of wit – and obvious delight – in designing his own martial paraphernalia. We initially read them only as the usual militaristic belts, bars, shoulder pads and chest decorations you would expect. But the headlines (more on those in a minute) send us back for another look. In “Oil Wars”, for example, we see that the medals are actually stylized logos of international oil conglomerates. It’s a bit didactic, but adds a layer of satire to the work nonetheless.
Still, the didacticism of these titles sometimes gets the better of Mayers in the sense that he can throw water at what could have been more incendiary talk. For me, their joke dilutes the impact of the intended message. “Tidy Whitey” and “Captain Underpants” are two examples.
If we ignore the title of the first, we perceive an image that is viscerally painful: a torso that seems shot through the neck and in the shoulder. Inside the shoulder wound are three figures that represent victims of war. A tank, a grenade, a hooded figure (immediately reminiscent of the notoriously iconic image of Abu Ghraib) float on the surface of the picture plane. There’s also a severed ear, which I’ve taken to represent some sort of macabre war trophy. This assembly of symbols, with the piercing of the flesh, alone conveys a powerful indictment of the depredations of war. The character wears only a white T-shirt and briefs, which if not mentioned in the title might have felt like further humiliation for the tortured body. The catchy rhyming term “Tidy Whitey”, however, seems to shed some light on all that we have just perceived.
“Captain Underpants” also features a man in underpants (those covered in patriotic stars). The ridiculous title again injects humor that undermines the impact of the painting. Here, the body almost looks like it has its hands tied. The medals are delicately pinned to her skin – two directly over her nipples – which also appear to be covered in what could be scars or war paint. Bombs rain down from the sky in the background. Between Mayers’ blocky, cartoonish rendering and a title that evokes a comic book character, we lose an edginess that would make the image more compelling.
It is clear that the artist is making fun of this figure. But with the growing number of victims of armed conflicts around the world – in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar, in Sudan – is it enough to make fun of war? In Mayers’ defense, the War Chest series is not a new body of work. Most were painted between 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately, violent and deadly hostilities were also not lacking at the time. The intended sense of urgency that gave birth to the show only occasionally sparkles in the work itself.
Curiously, Mayers is a well-known activist from Maine who has overseen many projects (from Maine to Nicaragua) that deal with issues of social justice and world peace. This impulse is certainly the origin of the War Chest series – and other series. Perhaps the choice to serve his political declarations with a more acceptable dose of sugar (the color, the caricatural style) appeals to more people. If so, more power to her. How the message gets across is important these days. I just wonder if a more confrontational and hard-hitting approach might not be more effective.
Brilliant satirists have reacted with outrage throughout art history. Honoré Daumier and Georg Grosz immediately come to mind. In Daumier’s 1831 lithograph “Gargantua,” for example, the artist depicts King Louis Philippe sitting on a portable toilet as the privileged French bourgeoisie climbs a ramp to his gluttonous gaping mouth. At the other end of his digestive tract, the king rewards them by defecating a torrent of titles and other honors. The work landed Daumier in prison.
In his “Sunny Land” of 1920, Grosz uses a palette similar to that of Mayers. Yet this watercolor on paper rhymes with blood and massacre. The power brokers behind the Weimar Republic’s crushing of a Spartacist uprising after World War I (where Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered, along with 150-200 other anti-government protesters) are presented as assorted pigs. A dog runs away with someone’s entrails and a crazed butcher in a blood-soaked apron brandishes his still dripping knife. Grosz was also imprisoned for participating in the uprising.
The penetrating and corrosive force of all these works lies in their grotesqueness and unflinching denunciation of the government’s corrupt abuse of power. As inventive and well-painted as Mayers’ images are, they are mostly free of that barbarity or humor that is insurgent enough to feel almost dangerous. Of course, incarceration is thankfully unlikely in Mayers’ case. But the lack of threat (of legal action or at least scandal) to any protesting artist in America already neutralizes many of these types of works. Which means to me that it behooves artists to toe a harder line if this art is to rise above benign criticism.
In 2000, during a visit to Cuban artist Esterio Segura Mora in Havana, I learned that he had been forced to remove a work from an exhibition that depicted Castro wearing his typical military green from the size, but fishnet stockings underneath. He was commenting, says Mora, on the subtle homoeroticism of war and uniforms. A work from the Mayers show, “Purple Hearts”, does something similar. It depicts a muscular male torso with a hairy chest and arms. Again, medals are pinned in his skin. He wears epaulets with fringes, a belt and, on his crotch, another medal.
This image has bite. It plays with sadomasochism, the idea of men tightly integrated with men, the gay fascination with bodybuilding, and the uniformed sex role-playing that the Village People have so gleefully ridiculed. The “purple” in “Purple Hearts” also takes on a different context here as the lavender symbolizes gay empowerment. This work stings because even though discrimination against LGBTQ service members is illegal today, the vast majority of LGBTQ service members remain reluctant to step out into a still hypermacho and non-gay-friendly culture.
“Purple Hearts” is funny, of course. But it also hints at a deeper toll. This is what imbues this painting and others I mention (minus the silly titles) with their potential to sway minds and pierce our hearts.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]