Golub’s art explores horror and humanity

By Michael Murphy

The Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 118 North Peoria Street in the West Loop, opened its doors Friday night showcasing recent work by veteran painter Leon Golub. Much of this exhibition echoes Golub’s lifelong commitment to painting political and human horror. The other paintings explore terror, fear, and the sometime comic humanity found interspliced within broodings over death.

Golub’s presence in the Rhona Hoffman gallery is bleak, sparse, and to the point. Familiar are the characteristically empty canvases that retain sketched images of immobile men and distorted bodies. New to his repertoire, however, are symbolic images collaged over the canvas, replacing the much more narrative photography evident in earlier works such as “Vietnam” and “Mercenaries.”

Our first glance when entering the gallery reveals a wall peppered with ink sketches comprising two very distinct narrative series. The two series titled We Can Disappear You and This Could Be You are images of, respectively, the struggling act of government disappearance and what the product of torture looks like.

Most dynamic of the batch are “We Can Disappear You #4,” depicting a man being stuffed into a trunk; and “This Could Be You #17,” showing a tortured woman naked, on her knees, and bound. These paintings demonstrate the state terror networks at work in Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, and El Salvador during the military takeovers of the 1980s. Their inclusion in this current exhibition cannot help but refer to current political tension and unrest over war and the war on terror.

On both the north and south walls hang the larger draws in the exhibition, “Time’s Up” and “Scratch.” Although less narrative then the We Can Disappear You series, “Time’s Up” attacks the injustice of capitol punishment. This painting reads like an incomplete game of hangman: characteristically missing a few consonants while the hanging stick figure awaits his turn to be stretched. Golub does not let us miss the bleak reality of hangman, highlighting how relative our margin of error remains in state-defined justice.

The symbolic structure of this painting lines up like an overstuffed refrigerator. The hanging figure, placed next to an upside down skull, squashed near a floating heart of Jesus, reads like a recipe in the Patrick Bateman cookbook. Golub collapses gruesome horror with legalized horror. He makes the randomness of serial murder something akin to state justice by, incidentally, writing “A judiciary error” over the hanged individual.

As symbolist, Golub is clearly taking a cue from Frida Khalo in his work. He seems to have stolen directly from Khalo’s war chest in “Time’s Up,” using her most recognizable images to brood over the morbidity of corporeal anguish, discretionary state justice, and the hopelessness of life.

This most recent exhibition of Leon Golub’s work retains the same potent political discretion that his work has held for over 50 years. Emerging during abstract expressionism and Pop Art, Golub’s ahistorical take on man’s predisposition for brutality has re-appeared as cutting edge in times of conflict. As a student of both The Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Chicago, Golub’s early work used mythic Greek battle imagery. It was not until the Vietnam conflict, however, that Golub was recognized as an artist committed to re-reading conflict through the terror of its players. During this period, he created possibly his most well known works, including the series Vietnam and Napalm.

After a brief retirement in the mid-’70s, Golub re-emerged to paint the horror of Latin America. The state terror promoted by these governments still influences his work today. Paintings such as “Mercenaries,” “Riot,” and “Interrogations,” were recognized internationally as using art to protest political reality.

Golub has been committed to artistic protest his entire career. As political horror exits and returns to the front pages of the media, so too do Leon Golub’s spurts of success. This is certainly the reason behind his work’s currently being displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As war remains on the horizon for the U.S., The MCA’s current exhibition War (What is it Good For) uses the work of Golub, among others, to make a political statement against war in Iraq.

It seems as though Golub’s recent return to Chicago is a full-scale occupation of the artistic scene. Along with pieces exhibited at The Rhona Hoffman Gallery (until March 1) and the MCA (until May 18), Golub’s recent work is also being shown at the Chicago Cultural Center (until March 30), and at Printworks (until February 8). Likewise, the award winning film Golub, and its postscript, Late Works are the Catastrophes, will be showing with the filmmaker Jerry Blumenthal and Leon Golub himself at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday, January 30 at 6 p.m.