Secret agency - Cold War-era images of 'Surveillance' hold relevancy today
'FRONTIER DEFENSE: IMAGES OF SURVEILLANCE,' LAWRENCE GIPE
By Josef Woodard, SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS
October 5, 2007
Though his various exhibitions around town, local art followers have learned that Lawrence Gipe loves esoterica and detective work.
At the short-lived but lovable Ro Snell Gallery last year, his show of dark and detailed imagery was based on a book of circus photographs from 1936 Germany, an inviting calm before the Nazi storm. Gipe -- who draws and paints in a clean realistic style that would satisfy any modernism-hating despot -- finds ripe fodder for conceptual reworking in musty archives of 20th-century propaganda, Soviet kitsch and Americana.
For his first show at the still-young Edward Cella gallery, Gipe, who teaches at UCSB and Arizona State-Tucson and shows his work internationally, takes a seemingly lowly surveillance manual from a Cold War Eastern Bloc country and transforms it into the stuff of art. His small but loaded drawings are brimming with intrigue and contain a smattering of irony. Training films for spies, issued by the Soviet-era Hungarian Ministry of Defense, give the artist plenty to think about and draw, while appreciating the built-in kitsch factor of antiquated spy technology.
Oddly, the timing seems unusually right. Cold War skulduggery and paranoia found its way into art-house theaters and the Academy Awards this year with the German film "The Lives of Others.' The film dealt with the grim, cold realities of life during the era of the East German secret police, the Stasi, who used the country's engineering know-how to keep East Germans on edge.
Gipe's exhibition of drawings is both fun and chilling, although his series has a subtler, more layered sense of purpose than "The Lives of Others.' Gipe details the acts and techniques of surveillance, while relishing the elite air of secret knowledge embedded in propaganda. Art about propaganda, like art about pornography, can simultaneously indict the subject while delighting in it or satirizing it.
Imeticulous, no-nonsense graphite drawings, Gipe offers viewers what appear to be conspiratorial insights into surveillance techniques of the past. A man with a walkie-talkie crouches in underbrush, and is drawn in the compressed space recognizable as a view through a camera's telephoto lens. Another image shows a man in an office, but through what appears to be an air-conditioning grate on the ceiling. "Study No. 5 from Frontier Defense (House Search, 1973)' depicts a man opening a safe, from a view that seems to be from a secret camera in a corner . But the points of fascination in the picture -- the utilitarian desk, the black rotary phone, the drab government-issue drapes -- appeal mainly to a kitsch-loving instinct.
In other drawings, there are spies perched in hotel rooms, seemingly casing the actions of their prey. But the dramatic context is stripped. What viewers are left with is a curious hint of detective work without a story. Naturally, there are contemporary points of national relevancy in this work, having to do with the heightened state of alert in the age of Homeland Security, and the unsettling ambiguity and legality of a police state. But Gipe wisely stops short of bringing his message so directly close to home.
Like a good man on assignment, Gipe sets out to draw and contextualize his reproductions out of a quasi-clandestine source, and leaves the added interpretation to viewers. Funny how art and intelligence communities operate in similar ways, in that each deals with gray areas, investigative techniques and shadings of the truth