If aliens are watching CNN, they can sum up our world in one (English) word: Disaster. Ours is a world of plane crashes, hurricanes, boys with machine guns, one wretched tragedy after another. Viewers watch endless replays of the coverage, vicariously suffering along with those directly affected.
But what if there was something to see in those pictures besides the attendant human suffering— a moment of beauty, a bit of irony, a spiritual memo from a higher power? And what about the turning point these disasters represent— the moment at which everything changes, after which nothing will ever be the same again? How do we move forward again?
Kim Russo, chairwoman of the College of Santa Fe art department, has been pursuing those questions of late in very small to very large graphite and watercolor paintings of disasters. But Russo’s sinking ships, crashing cars, wrecking trains, falling airplanes and burning buildings are set in surreal, unpopulated environments, as if the victims had experienced a biblical rapture and been whisked away just before the turning point. Yet each of Russo’s calamities has its witness, characters so ludicrous their mere presence declares these images allegorical, not documentary.
The witness in “A Capsized Ship” is a cartoonlike figure in a yellow-and-red chicken suit. He stands on the dock, curiously indifferent to the events taking place in the water. A three-deck ship is sinking, though still tethered tenuously to land by a fraying rope. But the ship hasn’t merely capsized; it appears to be shape-shifting, melting into the water. Mr. Chicken stands framed by an archway to nowhere. A city skyline rises in the background.
(Could this be your life? At times, mine has certainly felt like this: Everything seems to be fine— the ship is tied up to the dock— but as Annie Lennox once crooned, “this boat is sinking.” And the one guy around who might lend a hand is wearing a chicken suit and not paying attention. Go figure. Certainly this interpretation is not what Russo had in mind, but hey, that’s the risk an artist takes.)
In “A Terrible Wreck,” at 14 feet long Russo’s largest piece in the exhibit, the viewer looks down a set of train tracks at the end of which is a wreck. A passenger car and many freight cars have jumped the tracks, landing in a violent jumble together. But placidly grazing in a bright green meadow next to the track are four horses, oblivious to the crash. Likewise, an unscathed engine awaits a hookup at the right side of the picture plane. The converging of the tracks is about perspective, of course, and marks that turning point Russo is contemplating, challenging our assumption that this moment can only be experienced as tragic. The horses in their bucolic setting remind us that life goes on, beauty persists, and this too shall pass.
Russo’s “Plane Crash” is reminiscent of United Flight 93’s demise outside of Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001. Who can forget the visual dissonance of that beautiful verdant field and the broken plane? Here, the plane is but a burning shell, smoke obscuring any background; once again no people are pictured. But in the sky flies a hot-air balloon in the shape of the controversial British black-faced fictional character, the ever-smiling Golliwog. One can’t help but think of the reports of those who in reality witness disasters, their wildly differing accounts and sometimes ridiculous claims of what they saw. (“I swear, officer, there was a Golliwog in the air!”) The larger questions seem to be which gives greater offense: the plane crash or the racist caricature?
“Portrait of a Chihuahua in a Pink Hoody” offers welcome humorous respite. The Chihuahua in question wears a pink outfit complete with fluffy white hood. She sits under a folding table on top of which sits a folded American flag; her limpid brown eyes gaze directly at the viewer. The setting is behind the backstop of a baseball diamond on school property; smoke billows from the building in the background. Russo has carefully painted the chain link fence separating the viewer from the school, reminding us that our perceptions of any event are altered by obstacles real and imagined. If only Chihuahuas could talk.
In “Chihuahua” as in all the works in this exhibit, Russo gives the viewer options for engagement. Chihuahua or burning school? Chicken or sinking ship? Golliwog or burning plane? Her painting technique also echoes this dualistic feel, carefully illustrative in some respects, watery and blotchy in others. Some pieces are mostly drawn and partly painted; others are the opposite. Some areas are painstakingly articulated, as the chain-link fence; other areas, including the schoolyard, are left completely empty.
All these pieces are as baffling as a Zen koan, the type of paradox presented by a Buddhist teacher to his pupils to demonstrate that truth cannot always be found in reason. Once the pupils discover that there is no answer to questions such as, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” they are freed from their intellectual chains and headed for enlightenment— and, of course, the beauty of it all.