Fearsome Fable – Tolerable Truth, Hyde Park Art Center

Special Thanks to Martin Garcia for directing and producing the video.

Tom Torluemke, in a wizardry of paint and canvas, has conjured into existence the spirit of the beginning of contemporary art.

When Francisco Goya’s series of 80 etchings titled “The Disasters of War” was finally published in 1863, 35 years after his death, it changed art forever. It was the birth of Modernism and the start of representational realism. The etchings expressed Goya’s rage at the Napoleonic troops which invaded Spain in 1808. Spanish rebels were impaled on trees or trussed up and hung with limbs and heads chopped off by the French. In one melee with French soldiers a Spanish women drives a spear through the midriff of a soldier while holding a child under her other arm. Over the course of the 80 etchings, the tone changes from action to landscapes of the dead and dying. The difference in attitude of Goya’s etchings from what went before is especially striking knowing that the French had sent painters with the troops to record the glories of war and battles.

Torluemke’s blasted landscapes, junkyards, dilapidated buildings, and especially the black cut-out bodies remind me of Goya, despite the difference in presentation. Goya depicted his atrocities without backgrounds, with little that is identifiable as context. In contrast, Tom Torluemke provides ample context. We are presented with a vast panorama of desolate mountains, smokestacks, and distant wrecked buildings as background. Aquatic scenes have the look of 19th century dioramas from a natural history text, or alternately the bottom of an aquarium full of guppies. The imagery is rendered in Torluemke’s signature pastels. It is a landscape that frightens by its content, but not by its mood, which remains cheerful in the face of the devastation. It is not the form, then, but Torluemke’s content — set against the currency of popular imagery — that is reminiscent of Goya’s work.

These paintings are like WPA murals — but in style only, not in content. Here there are no celebrations of the glories of industry which would rescue us. Instead we see the smoke stacks of industry spewing pollutants, the junkyards of vehicles which go unreclamated, and the graveyards speading like a badly tended field of corn. On the reverse sides of the painted panels, the wrecked landscapes and cemeteries have been replaced by more benign scenes of windfarms and swaths of grass. Tom claims to illustrate the turnaround which could make the world a paradise. The viewers can turn the panels to symbolically invoke this view of the future.

Only end results are shown, not the means of destruction nor the powers of regeneration. The pastel colors might be appropriate, for both the utopia  and the dystopia are fantasies, and I think purposely so. There probably are no solutions leading to a bright future, just as there is no direct causality for a wasted world. People will continue to walk a path between these extremes. And the world will be this, just as it always has been — part paradisiacal, part devastation.

The most frightening aspect of Torluemke’s installation, however, are the sculptural outlines of the black figures strewn about in front of the scenes of utopia and dystopia, complete with vultures waiting for an opportunity. The figures and vultures bring to mind another Spanish incident, 400 years earlier, during another swing of the world from order to chaos. In 1532, just prior to his capture by the Spanish mercenary Pizarro, Atahualpa, one of the claimants to the imperial throne of the Incas, had ordered the elimination of his rival’s sons. All seventy were staked to the ground and left for crows to tear out their eyes and vultures to rip open their bellies and eat them alive.

Jno Cook, 2012

Exhibit Images

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