November 2, 2009


COMMENTARY: Gonzales, Golub and the Ugly Truth

The nation is approaching a tragic 5th anniversary of the November 10, 2004 nomination and the February 3, 2005 confirmation of Alberto Reynaldo Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General. Not exactly an occasion to muster a jubilee of justice. In fact, the sad prospect of recalling the installation of one of the Bush Administration’s chief architects of villainy – spying on Americans, firing U.S. attorneys for political advantage, and torturing foreign citizens (just to highlight a few) – has led me to an unexpected conclusion: I miss Leon Golub.


Golub, who died in August 2004 at age 82, was a gritty, Chicago-born artist who never looked the other way when it came to depicting the shocking realities of life. Remember those infamous Abu Ghraib photos? They were and are grotesque examples of ugly human behavior. They came to light after Gonzales, then White House counsel, authored and commissioned various “torture memos” in 2002 and before Gonzales was promoted to U.S. Attorney General. The savage actions memorialized in the Abu Ghraib photos also could have been subjects in Leon Golub paintings.


For several decades, Golub examined the often hideous truth of how human beings treat one another, creating wall-sized, monstrous works that simultaneously documented our past, foreshadowed our future, and now serve as siren warnings of the horrors we are clearly capable of inflicting. The process Golub used to make art – scraping paint from his canvas with a cleaver – mimicked the violence he often portrayed. And the disturbing images – crouched, writhing victims of napalm bombings in his Burnt Man series; threatening soldiers chasing screaming children in his Vietnam series; and, most prophetically, the masochistic brutalization of stripped and hooded prisoners in his various Mercenaries, Interrogation, Riot, and White Squad paintings – depict adults at their despicable worst.


I did not know Leon Golub and only met him once, quite briefly, at a 2003 retrospective of his late work at the Chicago Cultural Center. But I miss Leon Golub because he had the courage to show us the ugly truth. Today’s world could certainly use more politicians who would stand up to the ugly truths of our past and present. But, frankly, today’s world also would benefit from more artists like Golub, too – good artists who know that entertainment confirms what we know and comforts us while true art confuses us and challenges us to grapple with reality, no matter how beautiful or ugly.

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