The exhibition Men at Work at Hagedorn Gallery through May 13 could just as easily be titled Men at Play.
Or, more accurately: placing the three Southern male artists — Gregor Turk, Paul Hagedorn and Peter Bahouth — alongside each other brings to mind how work, play, war, exploration, creation and destruction can all intersect and even conflate. Maybe it is something about the male — “the disposable rocket,” as John Updike put it — who blasts off in a blaze of conquest, uprightness and rigor and then burns out in softness, waste, destruction and uselessness.
The gentle, mute early comic-book boy-hero Henry, who literally builds his own rocket ship, appears in Peter Bahouth’s Journey to a Red Planet. Working with photographic film, stereographic equipment and viewers similar to the View-Master stereographic toy, Bahouth creates tiny worlds for Henry and his dog, who both escape a dying planet in search of a safe place.
There’s a lush totality to Bahouth’s simultaneously playful and solemn 3-D scenes. (Digital reproductions won’t capture it.) His images pop out in convincing and lifelike detail, yet every wisp of smoke, every planet, every desert dune is clearly artificial. They bring to mind the luminous worlds of early sound films, which had to be filmed entirely in studios to control extraneous noise, with the result that every leaf on every branch of every tree, as well as every blade of grass, was beautifully hand-made.
Though this vision is clearly fake, even at times a little shoddy, it is still somehow superior to real life: desirable, fantastic, vivid, isolated and, ultimately, glamorously inaccessible. This may be the place our imaginations long to go, though as adults we will seldom admit it.
One wants to call Hagedorn’s similarly constructed depictions of war scenes — or his school desk that doubles as a jet fighter’s cockpit — playful, but these are scenes of war and destruction after all; some have fuses and real explosive material inside of them. (Hagedorn owns the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery. Maybe I should get more worked up about his inclusion, but meh, I’m not. His stuff is interesting enough to go here.)
Kittens play with each other until it’s time to use the skills they’ve developed to go off and kill something. Hagedorn’s is a mind obsessively creating these little boyhood mini-worlds of comic-book action, never forgetting that it’s all somehow connected to the way real firepower develops.
There’s something compulsive, ineluctable and explosive about the creative act here. “Boys and their toys” is, after all, a phrase people use alternately to dismiss kids at play, grown men wasting money on flashy commodities or — even more pessimistically — the destructive power of military technology itself.
In their fascination with war, travel, fantasy, history, there’s a vein of something distinctly Southern running through the work of all three artists. It has its most explicit, and strangely least enchanted, articulation in Gregor Turk‘s 1998 Sherman Williams, a photograph which depicts Union General William Tecumseh Sherman astride his horse in front of a Post Apartment complex. Post Apartments are often seen as emblems of ahistorical development and sprawl. But the suggestion that such development is the work of outsiders is off base. We are the home of Newt Gingrich, the Platinum Triangle and endless suburbia; these cannot be blamed entirely on Yankees.
Far better are Turk’s more recent works. Some still riff on the Civil War in topographic scenes of famous battle sites made with black inner-tube rubber. Others depict familiar Atlanta highway interchanges in the same material.
Nicely done are the globes wrapped in the inner-tube material — conquest, development and despoiling are global, after all. The inner-tube globe with nozzles for inflation achieves a sort of glory, as does a phallic monument wrapped condomlike in the material, seemingly marking some victory or conquest — a doomed attempt at permanence, waiting only for further pompous inflation or the ultimate, inevitable deflation.
Vanity, clearly thy name is man.