Hope Among the Ruins
By Stacy Davies
There’s nothing human beings love more than a memorial—death is the great universal connector. Mark Twain put it succinctly when he wrote this final statement before his own demise: “Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.” Yes, death is the conduit of empathy, and other than being born, the one event that we all share.
Historical deaths are particularly meaningful, and we view with fascination old footage of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father’s funeral, or photographs of Lincoln’s train transporting his casket across the war-torn nation. Sometimes, we watch in revulsion—black men hanging from trees in Alabama, skeletal children dumped into ditches in Auschwitz. Sometimes we merely watch in awe, puzzling over disasters like the Hindenburg and Titanic, among other less-glamorized, ill-fated voyages.
Then there’s 9/11. As the most conflicting tragedy and troubling memorial our country has ever known, we’ve only ever been able to liken it to the bombing of Pearl Harbor; it’s only similar to that day in one way, however—both were attacks on our soil by an enemy. Few people who were of age when Pearl Harbor was struck are still with us, of course, and the terror they felt now only lives in history books, old letters, vintage films, photographs and crackling radio broadcasts. The event is not forgotten, but the pain of it does not endure; it is a wound that has healed through the passage of time.
This is not yet the case with 9/11, a day we are still urged to “never forget,” and yet, that’s really what most of us would like to do. If you were coherent at all when our country fell apart, there is no way you ever could forget, and if you were under the age of 20, you will never really understand—you just hadn’t lived long enough to realize how different our country was before we were twisted inside out and turned on our ear. But sloganeering cheapens those horrible memories, I think, and it certainly whitewashes the years that followed—a decade characterized by a dishonest government and predatory corporations lying, cheating and swindling the American people, encouraging us to turn on one another in a display of national ferocity not witnessed since the American Civil War.
I don’t want to remember the false calls to war, fake orange terror alerts, respected news anchormen forced into bitter retirement or death threats received by little country music girls. And I can assure you that in the myriad 9/11 tributes splashed across the nation this weekend in the name of honor and patriotism, you will find no mention of how we failed to properly retaliate against the attack or unite in its aftermath, and how the killing of Osama Bin Laden came literally ten years too late.
The one thing we can do, and will, is mourn the men and women lost in the air, on the ground, in the buildings and every day on the battlefield. We will cry for death. Death of people, death of dreams. And yet, among this darkness there is hope among the ruins; hope that time will move more swiftly to heal this wound, and hope that while we cannot resurrect the humans who are gone, we might one day resurrect the humanity we have lost.
In the tribute exhibition, “A Scar on America,” at Pomona’s Main St. Gallery, curator/owner George Cuttress offers a glimpse of what that day might look like. Unofficially called “The Flag Show,” Cuttress has assembled a series of abstractions on Old Glory that urge a profound reimagining of our patriotism, our understanding and our country – and most of all, spark a revitalized hope for our future.
Karen Kauffman’s exceptional Stunned Silence is a graying, scribbled-on flag with a field of dried yellowed roses for stars and a single red line or “scar” running through the middle. It’s earthy and warm, subtle and unobtrusive, a flag from some future time, perhaps, when no one is alive who remembers this day, and when it, too, becomes a poignant but painless episode from a history long since gone. Likewise, Ken Sheffer’s prodigious Supernova & Stripes foregoes the stars and in their place presents the ultimate cosmic stellar explosion that is the source of new suns and new life. This is hope.
Fr. Bill Moore’s also offers a glimpse of more positive tomorrows in Ascension, his stark white display of three red lines and an ascending gold orb filled with tiny soul stars. There is comfort here, and a looking forward to a time when lines of division have been erased and instead of medals and mantras, a circle of life celebrating every being is the focus of humanity. In a more grounded turn, Moore’s A Day in the Life is a bold rendering of the flag in black and white and speaks to the harsh reality that often hides behind symbolism—a truth that is palpable and hard to swallow, yet freeing when revealed.
After witnessing the destruction of your people and country, fury and fear are certainly appropriate and natural responses, and in Veronica Michalowski’s brilliant Ashen Arabics – The First Second of the New America, we find a depiction of the Stars and Stripes in reverse that contains one of our most cherished messages written in Arabic, and boy does it burn.
On the flipside, traditional images of the Red, White and Blue that hearken back to better days appear in Joy McAllister’s inviting oil, Storm on the Homefront and in David Holzberger’s hand sawn wood piece, 911, a bucolic offering that takes you right back to Rockwellian apple pie and Fourth of July parades.
The center piece of the exhibit, however, is Kai Yi’s massive acrylic and mixed media on panel, Map in Transition, a conceptual masterwork that presents the United States awash in red and blue that mixes up the traditional habitats of donkeys and elephants, and a terrain collaged with phrases and symbols that while often politicized, are presented in a way that both avoids controversy and stimulates thought. In fact, this work might even be seen as a unification piece, where all lines are blurred and all concepts are up for revision. Death and memorials don’t have to be the only things that unite us, after all. Why not choose life?
“A Scar on America” at Main Street Gallery, 252-C S. Main St., Pomona, (909) 868-2970; www.pomonaframehouse.com. Tues-Sat, 10AM-6PM. Opening reception, Sun, Sept. 11, 5PM-8PM. Thru Sept. 31.