George Gittoes

Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston

Through July 17
by Rachel Hooper

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      George Gittoes
      The Video Store, installation view
      Courtesy of the artist

      View Gallery

      True to its reputation as the most politically engaged museum in Houston, 
the Station Museum has dedicated its summer exhibition to the 
impassioned work of Australian-born pacifist artist George Gittoes. Gittoes's
 practice is gutsy. He travels to conflict zones in Rwanda,
 Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, gets to know people caught up in the
 horrors of war, records his experiences in drawings and videos and 
then creates moving paintings and documentaries unlike anything I have 
ever seen.

      Echoes of German Expressionism and psychologically charged portraiture 
mix with tropes from comic books and photojournalism in his large-scale paintings to powerful 
effect. His more immersive and abstract works are the most gripping. 
A horrific 6-1/2 x 10 feet blood red painting of dismembered bodies, 
Assumption (2009), makes an indelible impression. His brightly colored, tessellated Mosque (2011) conveys a traumatic experience with
 its looping video of a man touring a mosque covered in blood where a
 massacre has recently occurred. I will never forget the pain and 
suffering in his subject’s eyes.

      Due to the brevity of the clip and its display in Mosque, an immersive environment, one quickly gets a sense of the artist’s interest in immediacy and empathy, which runs through both his documentary films and his two-dimensional work. It takes a few hours to view Gittoes’s recent feature-length documentaries, four of which are on a single loop in a black box screening room near the entrance to the exhibition. The screening room’s prime location makes sense, since the artist’s documentaries are the work for which he is most widely known. (An excerpt of his film about the music that American soldiers listened to and created when they first invaded Iraq, Soundtrack to War (2005), was featured in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.)

      However, the full-length films are not the strongest or most interesting works in the galleries; a visitor’s time is better spent poring over the hundreds of drawings on the walls and in vitrines in the center of the exhibition. The artist's diaries (1987-present), fictional story “Night Vision” (1991-present), and the epic of Gittoes's alter ego Colonel Night are compelling narratives that provide a back story connecting all of the artist’s films and paintings. The journals record Gittoes's peripatetic travels to war-torn places on every continent (except Antarctica). They include drawings, magazine clippings and texts that record his experiences and dreams. The notes in Gittoes's journal play out in Colonel Night's adventures in hell where he is eaten by a giant spider and emerges as a grotesque hungry angel with wings. Through fiction, the artist inserts himself into violent situations that he has observed.

      Although Gittoes's journals are expressively rich, they provide very few
 details about the practicalities of his day-to-day life. The 
introductory text for the exhibition does little to fill in the gaps. 
It is mostly a catalog of Gittoes’s travels. For
 me, the critical questions are not where and when the artist has travelled, but rather how does he arrange to go to these locations
 and why. There is very little transparency as to how he goes about 
fundraising, getting security clearances and making connections when
 he first travels to war zones, though surely this is a substantial
 part of the reality of what he does. What are the factors that keep 
him motivated to continue his practice? Is it important to him to remain neutral in the conflicts he observes? Knowing more about
 how Gittoes funds his projects and how he would define his perspective would give his project greater clarity and honesty. In terms of the artist’s own identity, does he consider himself an Australian, Afghan, or citizen of the world? The works at the Station Museum seem to promote humanism in the face of divisive nationalism or politics. If this is the main point that Gittoes hopes to drive home in his imagery, why is it not explicitly stated in the front wall label or exhibition brochure? 

      Despite these unanswered questions, which hopefully will be addressed
 in the forthcoming catalogue, Gittoes's solo exhibition, his first in 
the United States, is relevant, beautiful and brave in his fearless encounters 
with the horrors of this world. For nearly ten years, our country has 
been reeling from the trauma of 9/11 and engaged in wars on multiple
 fronts. Yet only rarely do museums mount exhibitions that directly deal with these 
issues. The option to ignore war is a position of privilege. Gittoes
 reminds us of the inescapable reality that many must face as a consequence of 
our government's actions.

      Rachel Hooper is associate curator and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fellow
 at Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.


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