DOMINIC MCGILL: AMERICAN HISTORY X
by Marin Herbert
America has often been best anatomised by outsiders, by visitors not tipsy on its cocktail of myths or writhing in its web of appearances. One thinks of Alexis de Tocqueville, touring the States during the 1830s before sailing back to France and producing Democracy in America, a foundational text in US schools ever since. One thinks of Robert Frank, hard nosed Swiss photographer and roving buddy of the Beats, whose book The Americans (1958) first showed the country its own inequalities and glories in panoramic fullness. One thinks of the indelible Swiftian grotesquery sketched by Ralph Steadman - a gallery of puking, screaming, velour-clad insects - in the Englishman's illustrations for the late Hunter S. Thompson's scabrous Aquarian-age journalism. (Among those contemporary philosophes who would aspire to update De Tocqueville, however, one tries to forget Jean Baudrillard and Bernard-Henri LÃ©vy.)
Plenty of American artists now position themselves publicly as involuntarily estranged from their own country, from younger practitioners such as Tom Sachs to elder statesmen like Richard Serra. Few, however, seem poised to deliver something like Dominic McGill's huge (1981 x 229cm) curving drawing Project for a New American Century (2004). Composed of thousands of overlapping pencilled summaries of historical events (and pungently apocalyptic snippets of imagery), its subject is nothing less than the past century, figured as a massive sequence of bleak nexuses. America is mostly at the centre: religion, race relations and foreign policy appear snarled up and intractable. One tiny snapshot from the overpowering whole: a preacher, arms aloft in supplication or triumph, ringed by spiralling texts that enumerate atomic tests, rising Bible sales, UFO sightings, paranoia over Communism, and escalating lynching. (This in the land of the free, of course, as opposed to the godless USSR.) Some of this material you'll remember from history classes. But it is usually apprehended in fragments. Only presented as a big picture does it coalesce into a portrait of a culture in freefall: ahistorical, irrational, insane.
SIEMON ALLEN/DOMINIC MCGILL: FUSEBOX GALLERY
ArtForum, Summer, 2004 by Howard Risatti
Clearly inspired by events in the Middle East, the works by Dominic McGill and Siemon Allen that make up the recent show "Pop Agenda" use a pop-cultural idiom to offer a glimpse of how political, economic, and social issues get transformed as they percolate through mass media and culture. McGill, who is British born but lives in New York, titles his work Project for a New American Century as a way to frame American military involvements in 2004 against those of the last hundred years. The immense drawing is suspended like a sculpture from the ceiling and looped in such a way that it forms a curved interior space in the center of the gallery. Beginning with the phrase NO FUN, NO FUTURE, NO OIL, a time line unfolds that references events and issues from Hiroshima to O.J. to the homeless to Cheney's "Energy Task Force"; all of this is conveyed via sweeping panoramas suggesting patriotic Hollywood war movies whose illusionistic spaces have been punctured by scrawled and printed news headlines, slogans, and leftist political graffiti. Following this loose narrative, the viewer eventually ends up in the work's interior, surrounded by forest scenes in which a nun can be seen praying. But even this space offers no respite: Images of an explosion and a hangman's noose break the stillness.
Allen, on the other hand, takes his political imagery straight and uneditorialized. On the walls flanking McGill's drawing, the South African artist, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, installed what at first appeared to be two large, gridded abstractions but which are actually the photocopied pages of comic books he read as a youth, laid out in a grid. Naglegioen ("Night Legion" in Afrikaans), 2004, measures approximately seven by fourteen feet and reproduces a black-and-white photo-comic from the '70s that tells the tale of South African mercenaries in Portuguese-controlled Angola trying to rescue a local governor's daughter from mutinous colonial forces. Because all the participants look alike and the Afrikaans-language text is untranslated, it's impossible for an American viewer to tell heroes from villains, and one is left to ponder the nature of aggression and violence itself. On the opposite wall is The Land of Black Gold, 2004, another giant at seven by sixteen and a half feet, which takes apart a still painfully current 1950 Tintin comic about colonialism and Middle East oil. The original Frenchlanguage edition of the comic book and its 1971 British translation are aligned in parallel rows with all text removed from the panels to show how its British translators and publishers transformed the later version, not only entirely expunging anti-Jewish images and all depictions of the British Navy and British Mandate forces in Palestine, but actually changing the setting to a fictional Middle Eastern emirate called Khemed. Gradually, with scenes redrawn, truncated, or eliminated so as to project a more politically expedient story, the two editions get further and further out of sync. Like McGill's technique of puncturing wide-screen panoramic effects with graffiti and text, Allen's shifting frames make the changes in Western political attitudes toward the Middle East palpable and visible; they also raise our awareness of the way seemingly innocuous sources can quietly manipulate our understanding of history.