"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

When Art Imitates Strife, Not Life

According to Dallas Morning News contributor Charles Dee Mitchell, the artist Barnaby Furnas "was probably that kid who sat at the back of the class in high school and drew pictures in his notebook when he should have been taking notes. And the pictures were gory." A 2000 graduate of Columbia University, Furnas has exhibited his work in galleries in New York and in Europe, but currently his work--including two John Brown themes--is being solo-exhibited at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

In an article published on April 24, Furnas is quoted as saying: "In a way, my painting has always been about rehearsing my fears. Making a picture of something can make you feel like you have power over it." Journalist Mitchell opines that what the artist fears most, "apparently, is annihilation, and he obsessively rehearses scenes of martyrdom and messy death. He usually applies the blood by squirting red paint onto the canvas with a syringe. It splashes and arcs across the surface, flowing from wounds and more often than not exploding from burst heads. Perfectly clear blue skies provide a sunny backdrop for the horror."

In one of the two Brown themes, the Subject "stands awaiting execution with a noose already around his neck. The almost stick-thin figure is in profile, but he turns his gaze directly at the viewer." The journalist continues--in error, as usual for journalists writing about Brown: "It's recorded that Brown delivered a two-hour speech before his hanging, [no, it's not recorded--Brown made no speech before his hanging] but in Mr. Furnas' image the speechmaking is over and the look on Brown's face conveys both resignation and anger. Along the bottom of the canvas upraised pistols send bullets flying into the air."

No sophisticated art critique here, folks. Personally I'm neither moved nor offended by this portrayal of Brown. However I much prefer the hanging as portrayed by Jacob Lawrence in his series called The Legend of John Brown.

Lawrence's rendering (No. 22) also portrays a slender figure, but instead of setting Brown against a dismal backdrop of guns and bullets, there is only the blue sky and clouds--no gallows, no people, as if the only thing that really mattered about Brown's death is the ultimate meaning of his martyrdom. Furnas' Brown has not yet fallen through the trap door. His head is turned toward the viewer revealing an expression not suited to the real John Brown's peaceful, yielded spirit at the time of his death. Rather we see an angry, doomed man about to die amidst an army of his foes. Brown did indeed hang before an audience of southern guardsmen, but no gun was fired nor voices raised except one southern officer who made the perverse, fallacious pronouncement that Brown was an "enemy of humanity." The figure in Furnas' painting seems an enemy, or at least victim--not martyr, which in its etymology means "witness." In contrast, Lawrence's figure of Brown hanged is the ultimate witness--a man of this world yet somehow transcendent; a man executed yet somehow redemptive in his death.--LD

To read an on-line article about the Furnas exhibit, go to:

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