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Deja Vu 

Among the remaining mysteries of the world is art's ability to foretell, or at least suggest, the future. Fact follows fiction, and visual art often presages the fashions, fads and tendencies of tomorrow. No one knows why, but the visual arts have an oracular aspect that sometimes causes them to function as the tarot cards of our culture, occasionally even with stark immediacy. Charles Blank is a case in point. In the issue of Gambit Weekly dated Sept. 11, a write-up in the "Hot Seven" section described his new paintings as "a world of smart bombs, moronic terrorists and official terror."

As it turned out, the terrorists of Sept. 11 were more demonic than moronic, yet the timing was striking to say the least. The show had just opened that weekend, and the paintings, with titles like Silent Dust/Our Town, are filled with scenes of ruined cities and techno-ballistic weirdness. Yet, although this series is unlike anything he has done before, the idea for it seemed to come to him from out of the blue, and Blank swears he never knew where most of his imagery originated.

"I don't know what I'm doing -- I'm gonna be honest with you, half the time I don't really know. I just hope for the best," he says. Like many artists, he simply follows an impulse to see where it leads. It seems that early this year he was gripped by a foreboding about technology and its potential for mayhem, official or freelance. It struck him with an immediacy that caused him to abandon his former interiors and landscapes in favor of images like Pink Bombs, a view of a city terrorized by a sinister figure firing a pistol as buildings attacked from the air go up in flames. Most of the images in the show are similar, yet some are prescient exceptions. In Cybernaut Theater two guys dressed like medieval holy warriors battle each other with sword, mace and laser as futuristic aircraft swoop down from above. Now where did that come from?

It's certainly a departure from the original notion of modern technology as a double-edged sword, yet it neatly encapsulates the current conflict between the terrorism of a medievally based fundamentalism and the techno war machine of the West. All of this is painted in Blank's signature style of quasi-crude expressionism, and rendered with his lushly colorful brushwork. It would have been an interesting show anyway, but events have made it far more resonant.

Deja vu does an encore in Stan Rice's new work. Although his Holy War canvas only just debuted with his others last weekend, it was painted last winter, months before the attacks loomed in anyone's wildest imaginings. Here an avenging angel with outstretched wings stands in a suitcase filled with eyeballs. Clutching a sword (of the Damocles variety), the angel strikes a threatening pose before the multitude of eyes as a mountain of skulls looms large in the background.

It's an enigmatic image that might have merely seemed mythic if events involving self-styled holy warriors had not intervened. Yet, the hijackers, who saw themselves as the avenging agents of a higher power, were carried aloft on mechanical wings, setting in motion the carnage that the eyes of a nation watched so helplessly. The rest of the show is typical of Stan Rice, as is this canvas, even if it now seems more like an omen from some timeless void.

Although the World Trade Center towers are no longer with us, they still cast long shadows, even extending to Elizabeth Keithline's sculptures at the Waiting Room. Keithline employs a novel if laborious technique: She wraps wooden home furnishings in stiff steel wire forming a grid like the longitude and latitude lines on a map. She then sets them afire and lets them burn until there is nothing left but the wire outline and occasional scraps of charcoal. The results can be striking, especially Piano, the charred wire superstructure of what was once an upright piano. Devoid of its wooden patina and reduced to a steel skeleton, the final product is architectonic, eerily like the charred steel remains of the burned-out office buildings that once faced the trade center. The same holds true for Ladder, the remains of what was once a wooden ladder, now a burned-out stairway to nowhere. In happier times these pieces might have merely been stark steel icons. Now they have another resonance, and an almost elegiac beauty.

click to enlarge Though works like Silent Dust/Our Town seem eerily prophetic, Charles Blank says he doesn't know where he gets his ideas.
  • Though works like Silent Dust/Our Town seem eerily prophetic, Charles Blank says he doesn't know where he gets his ideas.
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