See Gene Tanta’s paintings HERE


In Gene Tanta’s show, “Face to Face,” at the Athenna Lloyd Gallery / Madden Arts Center, on Decatur, Illinois, two versions of the iconographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln face four versions of the iconographic portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. The figures do not look at each other, but the paintings do. In one corner, the eye follows Trotsky’s gaze to rest upon the face of  Ioan Petru Culianu, a Romanian historian murdered in Chicago in 1991. Nearly across the room from each other, Indira Gandhi, killed in New Delhi in 1984, and Agathe Uwilingiyimana, killed in Kigali ten years later, gaze past each other.

Each painting portrays a political martyr. The movements they represent were built by different coalitions that espoused different world views. What did the Abolitionists have to do with Communism? What single agenda could put Muammar Gaddafi in the room with Lincoln, or Archduke Ferdinand with Toussaint Louverture? If, at the initial glance, these are “our martyrs,” “we” are not the subjects of a particular set of ideologies, but consumers of a political economy in which assassination is an acceptable option for dealing with the opposition. But there are ideological coalitions and historical relations as well. Portraits of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Fred Hampton, Jr. appear alongside King, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg; Lee Harvey Oswald peers out between the Kennedy brothers. With one or two exceptions, all the figures share leadership in some political bloc, a violent death, and a robust public identity. These are the martyrs we know, portrayed in their most iconic poses. None of the images represent “innocent” martyrs: there are no Trayvon Martins or Micah Johnsons. Tanta memorializes agitators whose images have passed into our collective memory, fuzzy as it’s become. Obviously, they didn’t deserve to die, but they aren’t the casual victims of terrorism (i.e., violence on behalf of an imagined state) either. They “died for the cause,” having become, in life, figures to be reckoned with. Although focused upon abolitionism and civil rights (an entirely appropriate subject in Lincoln Country, in these days when Black Lives Matter), Tanta’s purview of the assassinated ranges across the globe and the twentieth century. Given the subject, one icon was missing: John Brown. There was perhaps one icon too many: John Lennon’s portrait seemed out of place–while many of the assassinated fought on cultural fronts, he was the only primarily cultural, rather than political, leader.

Nearly all portraits are poised as classical busts–some copied from earlier paintings, others from photographs that first appeared in newspapers. Most of the busts are represented by ink outlines that capture the minimal reproducible features. From a distance, these cartoons disappear, swallowed up by Tanta’s vibrant colors and multi-layered textures.Each images is bisected vertically and horizontally, to create four squares. When standing close to any image, the outlines of the portrait present a clear foreground; from ten or more feet away, the colors dominate. Because each painting juxtaposes four equally-sized blocks of varying, frequently repeated shades and tints, from the middle of the gallery the sequence resembles Josef Albers color squares. Many of the faces disappear and we confront abstraction: perhaps is it a kind of quilt: the patchwork into which the identities of even the most memorialized fade.

The systematic use of primary and secondary colors, iconic portraiture, and meditation on violent death recalls Andy Warhol’s celebrities and car crashes. But Tanta’s sensibility is more intellectual and pessimistic; he is not interested in Warhol’s lightness, “swish,” and reproducibility. The colors, some of which Tanta made himself from walnuts (he also uses soy sauce, food dye, and shoe polish), are rubbed and smeared into the paper and each other with brutalistic intensity. Although made primarily with ink and acrylic, some of the textures recall those Francis Bacon used in his malevolent portraits. One senses that Tanta  attacks the image again and again, producing a rich, melancholic palimpsest.

Words, with one letter per square (which causes the latter to resemble a child’s alphabet block) appear and disappear among the colors and representations. Many of the paintings almost spell something, and the letters provide additional, often abstracted outlines and color fields that intersect with the lines and planes that define the faces. The barely legible letters remind us that the portraits are symbolic entities–hieroglyphs that, taken together, spell out some larger, not quite definable truth about public dissidents. Because most of the letters are obscured by additional layers of ink and paint, they recall Mike Goldberg’s meaningless word, “SARDINES,” in Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter”:

        I go and the days go by

and I drop in again. The painting

is going on, and I go, and the days

go by. I drop in. The painting is

finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”

All that’s left is just

letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

(Selected O’Hara, p. 112)

O’Hara prefers poetry because words give him a more immediate experience with the causal thoughts he expressed so well. Painting takes time, a rumination. Things are covered by other things. The physicality of the process–each brush stroke caresses those below it, as Irina Bucan pointed out in response to Tanta’s work – allows for a slow accrual that poetry, because it’s so intellectual and narratival, never achieves.

I mention this because Tanta is a poet, translator, and teacher of poetry. The exhibit at Anna Lloyd Gallery / Madden Arts Center, Tanta’s first solo show, seems as much a movement away from language as it is an exploration of international political martyrdom. Tanta’s aware of this, as a passage from his Artist’s Statement suggests: “I feel uneasy splitting language from images just as I feel uneasy splitting drawing from painting,” he writes, “they all seem part of one vocabulary for me…” The effort to create distinctions between three kinds of visual vocabulary – words (mostly vanished), icons (present in their outlines), and colors / textures (a background that dominates)–is the source of this series’ strong magnetism. Each image asks you to fall into it; yet each is no more or less functional than a word – it refers you to the sentence, the paragraph, the page: some larger structure of feeling which no single word or image could capture.

There are other important texts. The labels, or wall captions, are original: they give us not only the title, size, and medium, but a description of the weather at the time and place of the death, as well as the reported last words of the deceased. The paintings don’t need these, but they matter in interesting ways. We learn that the Archduke died in August “during the year that saw the lowest recorded temperature for the city, -79.52 °F,” that President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, died “under unseasonably cool conditions with highs in the mid-60s in Los Angeles,” and that “ it was windy and sunny with temperatures breaking the 70 degree mark” in New Delhi on January 30th, 1948, when Mahatma Gandhi was killed. Knowing the weather grounds us, globalizes us, humanizes us; we all shelter under one sky. The part of the caption reminds us of the bodies that could be penetrated by knives, bullets, shrapnel, hunger. The icon was lodged in a body not unlike the one we drag through hot summers, warm springs, cool autumns, and frigid winters.

Perhaps the most hopeful wish in Tanta’s statement is the desire that his portraits help us to “mourn better.” In these days of continual shock and endless weeping, of stunned silence and righteous rage, these images fulfill this task. They ask us to mourn Lincoln and Gandhi, Archduke Leopold and Muammar Gaddafi, simultaneously. They fit that mourning within at least two other activities: the recognition of public figures – reduced, in their tragic glory, to memes; and the more private struggle with color, shape, line, tint, and transparency / obscurity that the artist has engaged in, as though to paint (rather than think) through the problem of political legacy with us.

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Gene Tanta’s “Face to Face” is at Athenna Lloyd Gallery / Madden Arts Center, 9/1 – 9/28/2017, Decatur, Illinois