Lawrence Gipe shows us the future through the lens of the past. By reconstituting and reinterpreting heroic images from between the world wars, he creates paintings that memorialize the false premise that man can triumph over nature. His is an exploration of our modern belief in the concept of progress and how it has been visually interpreted. Through painting, Gipe examines the ways in which photography represents the world. His sources are the advertising and propaganda through which politics, science, and technology have promised an end to poverty, disease, suffering and toil. Although Gipe borrows from photographs and illustrations he has collected – old issues of Fortune Magazine,US Camera, German material from World War II and publications of the WPA and TVA, among others – it is through juxtaposition and context, and a dramatization of the already over-dramatized, that he exposes their sinister effect.
This exhibition brings together a number of themes with which Gipe has worked before; the issue that unites them is one of power: over nature in the harnessing of energy, and in political domination. Figures such as Albert Speer, Alfried Krupp, Robert Moses, and Teddy Roosevelt who, for better or worse, sought to transform society with their visions, hover like ghosts in Gipe’s singularly unpeopled panoramas, which are often montages comprised of the symbols of their might. The irony is that many of Gipe’s paintings are in themselves monumental –Twentieth Century Limited, for instance, is made up of four abutted panels that together span 32 feet. A train, a plane, a piston, a skyscraper, and a generator that was a precursor of atomic energy, merge in a composition that emphasizes their aggressive characteristics. These are interspersed with various globe-like structures: the sculpture of Atlas holding up the world that identifies Rockefeller Center, the colossal Perisphere and Unisphere of the 1939-40 and 1963-64 New York World’s Fairs, and a fish-eye view of Manhattan from the Empire State Building – technological renderings of Mother Earth in which testosterone has run amok. Felt but also unseen is the presence of the myriad workers responsible for the creation of these buildings and machines, and their investment, as well as ours, in a future that promises prosperity. Referring, of course, to the first streamlined train that set speed records as it crossed the country in the late thirties, the title Twentieth Century Limited can also be read “Twentieth Century, Limited” – an acknowledgement of the cost of these advances to nature and the environment.
In the past, Gipe included text into his paintings, often single words like “faith” or “pride.” Now Gipe titles are simply titles, a shift that adds more subtlety and ambiguity, and makes his work more about the medium than the message. These are not didactic exercises (“I’m an observer,” Gipe says, “not a teacher”) butpaintings, masterfully executed, and their strength lies in Gipe’s seamless unification of his technique with his convictions.
In keeping with his values, Gipe’s images are not generated by computer but the work of a painstaking hand. That they are stunningly beautiful also contributes to his concept. There is often great beauty in man’s monuments to hubris, such as Mt. Rushmore, and even in the agents of destruction, as exemplified by the fighter planes that constitute one of Gipe’s frequent themes. In his paintings beauty is never benign, but appears as the other side of darkness. One, for instance, is a golden cityscape reflected in the water, seen through a romantic Turner-esque lavender haze. Its title, however, gives it another reading – Sicily, 1944 (Dawn After the Raid). In this, as well as in Insignificance, which depicts a tiny fighter plane navigating a blue sky rich with gorgeous clouds, one is reminded of Richard Misrach’s breathtakingly landscape photographs of radioactive sites. This is art that reminds us that even in war, the sun still shines and the birds sing.
These paintings are all about the millennium, a time for assessing man’s effect on this earth. Without denying the benefits of progress, Gipe wants us to be more cognizant of its consequences. By exposing the fictions inherent in history and the pompous proclamations of authority, Gipe’s paintings are an indirect but effective means of reminding us to heed the lessons of the Industrial Revolution as we speed down the Information Highway – and he entreats us to observe ourselves as we will be judged by future generations.