After Abu Ghraib
1050 North Mills Ave.
Claremont, CA 91711
Not content to let sleeping dogs lie, the After Abu Ghraib project stimulates a conversation about human rights violations and the widespread use of torture. Clayton Campbell transforms the original Abu Ghraib snap shots into large-scale geometric abstractions that are as formally seductive as an Ellsworth Kelly and as disconcerting as Leon Golub's Interrogation paintings.
In 1928, newspaper photographer Tom Howard—acting as an official witness to an execution—strapped a miniature camera to his ankle and snapped the exact moment of Ruth Snyder's death by electrocution. Published in the New York Daily News the following day, this historic blurry image marked the first photographic record of death by electric chair.
If Howard's image was the benchmark for public acceptance of gruesome and lurid imagery in the late 1920s, then today's equivalent must surely be the naked, hooded and shackled Iraqi prisoners photographed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Twistingly choreographed into pornographic vignettes, the blatant sadomasochistic content— prisoners piled in heaps, forced to perform degrading sexual acts amongst themselves and in some cases with their captors—portrays a cruelty that is almost (but not quite) beyond belief. They refuse to fade, existing as a testament to our capacity to behave egregiously.
By intentionally corrupting the digital files of these insistently barbarous Abu Ghraib pictures, Los Angeles-based artist Clayton Campbell transformed them into large-scale, geometric, painterly works. Bands of translucent reds, blues and purples migrate across the surface, shredding and obscuring as they go, allowing an indulgence in sensuous abstraction, a short-lived reprieve from the heinous acts. Resembling ancient Mesopotamian sculptural fragments—like those looted at the beginning of the U.S. “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the bodies detach and re-combine in surprisingly exquisite arrangements. The bands, reminiscent of those used to adjust the color image on our televisions, imply our readiness to accommodate and compromise our points of view. In a post-9/11 world, are we willing to accept torture and surrender our civil liberties? What are our true colors and how much are we willing to adjust them? Campbell's formal filter of distortion becomes a metaphor for averting our eyes—something we are only too eager to do.
Director/Curator, Pitzer Art Galleries
Clayton Campbell: On the Making of After Abu Ghraib
I am an artist who has always believed that social commentary in the arts is a concrete and important strategy to stimulate larger public conversations about things people would rather forget. As an artist who came of age during the Vietnam War, I also believe that my art can promote social justice issues while still investigating and addressing aesthetic and formal issues of art making. Like most people, I enjoy looking at something that is ultimately beautiful and uplifting and with the art I make, the viewer will take a bit of a different journey to arrive at their destination. That is my invitation to the viewer, to go somewhere with me, and see if we can all expand our worldview just a bit.
The historical link between images of torture and brutality in the arts and the recent photos from Abu Ghraib prison stretches over 2000 years. In our most revered sculptures from ancient Greece, depictions of torture and brutality are commonplace. Our recognition of this fact can be obscured by the intense beauty of the carving and our received notions of classical ideals of beauty. Similarly, Renaissance painting is filled with bizarre and disturbingly violent images of crucifixions and martyrdoms. But the familiarity of the paintings, and the beauty of how they are painted, again muffles the subject matter. In these ways, torture, rape and generally sadistic behavior eventually become part of our cultural DNA because they are part of our accepted cultural canon and historic legacy. In our moment of time, the media is our main source of a veritable tsunami of imagery that is problematic, and this too can become a numbing experience. We let all of this visual information in, yet bury it deep within our consciousness, where the images live on. Most Americans, upon seeing the Abu Ghraib photos, registered shock, but not really surprise. After a few months the subject disappeared from the news, and was not even mentioned in the 2004 presidential election.
In light of the political validation of torture by the Bush Administration during the current war in Iraq, I wanted to help renew a public dialogue around basic human rights and dignity. When my prints were coming off the photo press, the people in the print shop asked me why I was printing pornography. They were surprised to hear that the source was the photos from Abu Ghraib. They assumed it was Internet pornography. The Abu Ghraib photos can be seen as pornographic if we consider violence to be sexually charged and beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior. But for our culture, which is suffocating in imagery of sexual and physical abuse of men, women and children, pornography is widely accepted and/or tolerated. So it's just a small leap to accept images of violence that degrade us even further in ways that are unspeakable.
Many people as well as artists have been impacted by the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib. The photographs represent actions that are morally corrupt, there is no other way to describe the lack of conscience apparent in the actions of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. Playing off this notion of moral corruption, and the phenomena in digital media of ‘corrupted’ digital files that are considered aberrant ‘mistakes,’ I intentionally ‘corrupted’ my re-photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison snap shots. I reprogrammed the digital files with new information gleaned from writings by non-violent philosophers and practitioners. The digital files then became ‘corrupted’ and in this manner I was able to break apart the picture surface in unexpected ways. My photographs become large and abstracted images in order to make them approachable again. By themselves, the original source images are really horrible and people just don't want to look at them. In After Abu Ghraib they are transformed into wall-size imagery that is striking, even beautiful. After some reflection, it should become apparent to the viewer that something is “off” in the pictures. But by then, if the viewer has enjoyed what they are seeing, they are already inside the experience and the dialogue I am seeking to restart is under way.
I am an artist making Art, not political propaganda. Social commentary in the arts can be much more subtle and multi-leveled than ‘in your face,’ hectoring diatribes to push a point of view. My work is best experienced through an aesthetic prism as well as a socially engaged stance. I feel this combination makes the experience of viewing my work more potent, more authentic and creates more of a circle between the artist and the public. That is my honest intention in the After Abu Ghraib exhibition at Pitzer College.
I wish to thank Ciara Ennis and the Nichols Gallery at Pitzer College for their support and interest.
Words My Son Learned Since 9/11 (Coalition of the Willing) (2004)
11 x 8.5 inches
Courtesy of the Artist