Every generation’s collective zeitgeist is reflected on the silver screen. World War II (Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation”) remains largely etched in patriotic fervor and little carnage. War films from the 1940s often did double duty as recruitment posters by featuring the biggest movie stars of the day. Destination Tokyo (1944), for instance, finds a bare-chested Cary Grant being manly inside a submarine Though often shot in black-and-white, there were very few shades of gray. These films focused on the justness of the cause and the heroism of the men and women who eventually came home to ticker tape parades (Coming Home, which cast a more somber and realistic light on the struggles veterans face in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, was still a generation away). If a single image encapsulated the rockets red glare of victory, that would be Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945). Here, Old Glory flies at the apex of a human pyramid of soldiers—its classical composition recalling Theodore Gericault’s equally heroic proto Romanticist painting Raft of the Medusa (1819).
Even in the wake of the Enola Gay and Bockscar dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the existential dread threat of nuclear annihilation didn’t fully creep into Americans’ psyche until the bipolar 1950s. As Leave It To Beaver’s milquetoast portrayal of an idyllic middle-class suburbia played to audiences on the boob tube, it’s easy to imagine the Cleavers having a bomb-shelter in the backyard (and find Ward Cleaver leading midnight drills in a combat helmet and his ubiquitous business suit). The Cold War continued to escalate into the early 1960s, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as films took a darker and occasionally more (sur)realistic turn. Stanley Kubrick’s scathing Cold War black comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) may be the greatest of them all. In one indelible scene set in the War Room, the insanity of war (and the people in power with trigger happy fingers on or frighteningly near the button) is driven home when Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Buck Turgidson (played to the campy hilt by gum-chewing George C. Scott) lobbies President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) to launch a nuclear first-strike against the Russians, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks…” (Though the film was shot in black-and-white, Kubrick covered the War Room’s large round table in green felt to mimic a poker table).
“Peace Is Our Profession” is a recurring visual mantra oozing deadpan irony. (e.g. the billboard seen through a chain-link fence with fighter planes parked in front of it. Interestingly, this was the actual slogan for the Strategic Air Command and not a Kubrick concoction) Longtime Oakland conceptual sculptor and installation artist Charlie Milgrim would scoff at the absurdity of this. For her, the military industrial complex is primarily a for profit business. The almighty dollar trumps all.
Over the years, Milgrim has harnessed gravity to generate a palpable sense of anxiety. Love Drop (1996), for instance, retools a cherry red bowling ball into some giant candy offering precariously perched on a rusty pitchfork screwed into the wall above our heads—perhaps a distant wink to Grant Wood’s heraldic pitchfork and strait-laced couple from American Gothic (1930). Her magnum opus to date is Fearamid (1996), a pyramid erected from 35 black bowling balls each etched with the word FEAR nestled atop a thin, partially oxidized triangular base. Part of her modus operandi has always been to artfully subvert our expectations. Whereas the pyramid is usually the most stable geometric shape (its implied stability and ideologic bedrock is used to great effect in Rosenthal’s heroic photo) Milgrim’s sculpture portends just the opposite. Her Flintstones-like monument to angst suggests the stability of a house of cards.
Milgrim and fellow Bay Area sculptor Richard Serra deftly incorporate gravity and danger. The subliminal message is that their art could come crashing down on you. Yet whereas Serra’s massive industrial minimalist Installations forged of rusted steel are often executed on colossal scales (Viewers can walk inside or around some of his leaning behemoths), Milgrim’s best work is more down-to-earth, more intimate and more aesthetically pleasing. She selects and incorporates her raw materials with great care.
With Stealth Reverie (2011), the winning entry in the Sculpture category, the artist’s signature bowling balls have given way to paper airplanes and taken a ghostly minimalist turn. While gravity still plays a cameo role, light, air, and shadow materialize as serendipitous elements of her 30 foot-long installation composed of 13 jet black fighter planes fashioned from tar-paper (the same petroleum-based asphalt paper used in roof construction. As such, they also bring to mind birds covered in sludge from the latest oil spill). Each 20” x 36” plane is strategically positioned in-your-face, protruding the gallery’s white wall at “66” high (perhaps an allusion to Route 66, the mythic highway that sliced through America’s Heartland). Collectively). Deployed in a straight line, these ‘birds of prey’ form a rigid mid-air militaristic formation or minimalist war memorial.
What fueled Milgrim’s outrage and led to the genesis of Stealth Reverie is the annual aero acrobatic display by the Blue Angels over Bay Area skies during Fleet Week. She feels these costly (around $36 Million per year) tax funded spectacles put on by the Navy “are basically a public relations ploy to glorify the war industry”. (Tom Cruise in Top Gun would be another latter day example of eye candy enlisted as a propaganda tool similar to the World War II films.
The artist fondly recalls making and flying paper airplanes at school herself as a child. And subsequently as a former high school art teacher, she is also well aware that impressionable young minds are molded during childhood both at home and in the classroom. One minute children are carefreely playing with plastic G.I.Joes and the next they’re heading off to possibly die in a real war. A few grow up to become Buck Turgidson. It comes as no surprise that Stealth Reverie teeters coyly between the schoolyard, battlefield, and graveyard. The same can be said for the corrosive Rolling Home (c. 2004), a child’s wagon train whose three rusty red carts contain scrotal pairs of large (bowling) balls wrapped in the American flag while an oxidized artillery shell of unknown origin that was given to the artist by someone who discovered it in their garden rests in the third like a phallic slug in the trailing wagon. Toxic masculinity may have temporarily petered out here, yet the war machine rolls merrily on.
As the Blue Angels drum up support for the military industrial complex via their gravity-defying stunts, what emerges from Stealth Revelries’ eerie lighting (designed by Mercury 20 Gallery member Dave Meeker) is a shadowy phalanx of faceless automatons. These 13 robed’ specters, with their pinched, faintly Darth Vaderesque ‘heads’, exude a slightly sinister aura. The resulting shadow dance stretching down to the floor conjures lines from Bob Dylan’s surrealist poetry:
The empty handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
The sky, too, is folding under you
And it\’s all over now, baby blue
Seen from a different perspective, viewers may feel like they’re gazing down upon the tops of oddly-shaped caskets. The interplay of light and shadow contributes to a decidedly sepulchral aura. These faceless ghosts in turn become powerful metaphors for un-wo/manned drones that drop bombs remotely from some distant hermetically sealed think tank. Similarly, high-tech surgical strikes that do find bombardiers dropping their payloads from actual Stealth B-2 Bombers are well insulated from the horrors unleashed below. Death and destruction are reduced to a button-pushing video game. Nobody gets their hair mussed. This technologic-aided detachment and multiple degrees of separation throws Milgrim’s childlike tar paper airplanes into even sharper relief. Despite there not being a hint of blood anywhere, Stealth Reverie’s earthy, elegant conceptual minimalism soars as the polar opposite of Hollywood’s whitewashing the horrors of war on the silver screen.
Note: Artworks by Charlie Milgrim not illustrated can be seen at charliemilgrim.com