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March 13, 2004 at the DiRT Gallery, West Hollywood

by Mario Cutajar

“Elevator Falling”, 2003,
gouache on board, 5 x 14”.

“Terrible Humvee Accident”, 2003,
gouache on board, 6 1/2 x 13”.

“Collapse”, 2003, gouache
on board, 8 x 16 1/2”.
I’ve long thought that the disaster movie genre, of which Independence Day is a perfect illustration, is a barely disguised exploitation of a fantasy of unlimited consumption. Hyperkinetic, assaultive, relentlessly propelled by seamless special effects, the disaster movie is the visual equivalent of the “all you can eat buffet,” with the world at large as the ultimate object of consumption, effortlessly consumed and just as effortlessly restored so it can undergo endless cinematic variations on its destruction. Perhaps a more succinct way of putting this is to say that the disaster movie is the pornography of rampant consumerism.

The enabler of this ready transformation of disaster into entertainment at the hands of the corporate media is the nature of the photo-based image itself. What could not have been foreseen at the dawn of photography, when the medium promised its audience a heightened contact with reality, is that the photographic image, by inserting aesthetic distance between reality and its voyeuristic consumers, would render reality itself strangely unreal. So much so that when a real (as opposed to staged) disaster strikes, the millions who “witness” the disaster at a distance through news programming, as opposed to first hand, are prone to a habitual disbelief, which even nonstop replaying of the disaster imagery can’t quite seem to allay. As a headline from the satirical weekly, The Onion, put it, in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, “American Life Turns Into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.”

When confronted with images of actual catastrophe so close to home that their urgency is unavoidable, we are put in the position of having to abruptly cease consuming disaster as entertainment and having instead to come to terms with the shocking possibility of our own vulnerability. But that transition is not at all easy to make. That it is not may be cause for a troubling feeling of guilt, even a sense of complicity with the catastrophic event.

“Fuselage”, 2003, gouache on board, 5 x 14”.

It is this unease that Wayne Coe’s little gouache images of a plane piercing the curtain wall of a skyscraper, and the imagined mayhem this sets off inside, exploits. Falling elevators are turned into ovens (Elevator Falling). A massive flaming aircraft engine cuts a swath through an office with the overhead fluorescent lights still burning (The Engine). The forward mass of a plane entering the building’s interior scatters debris and bodies moments before we know it will explode (Fuselage). Coe, who is himself a filmmaker (he wrote and directed the 1990 horror flick Grim Prairie Tales) has stated that as someone who has worked in the movie industry (his other credits include posters for films such as Seven, Brazil, Minority Report, and several others) creating “hyper-real fictions for consumption” used to trouble him. With these paintings he deploys storyboard art to place us in the midst of the defining event of our time. This shoves the process of exploitation over the edge.

The provocation may strike some as callous, the more so in light of my reflections here. But if so I would also suggest that Coe’s imagery calls to mind the much larger and profitable callousness of the corporate media. Equally important, these paintings reveal the limits of images in and of themselves to capture the meaning of the events they frame. The emotional impact of a personalizing view more often than not is a means of manipulation rather than illumination. Is that the case here? You’ll have to work that out for yourselves. We are all stamped with an indelible imprint of 9/11, but what it means remains less clear than paintings that place you into the midst of the action, or than the startlingly vivd images of the atrocity that were broadcast throughout the world in real time.