The Ends of Empire

Garth Claassen's dark vision

| May 06, 2009
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias (1817)

The world has drastically changed in the 10 years since Garth Claassen's first solo exhibition of drawings at the Boise Art Museum, and there is no question this has had an impact on the art of our time. Nonchalant cleverness may keep art stars like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons in the big bucks, but it does not cut it on the local and regional scene.

Claassen is an artist of conscience and wit who cannot ignore the opportunities that current events avail him. For the second time in five years, we see him growing into the moment with a vision that brutally mocks and condemns the entrenched mindset that has brought us to more than one impasse.

Take, for instance, the role of mythology in his art of this decade, especially in his new show at BAM, "Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers and the Defense of Empire." The struggle against unseen forces, the archetypal character of his figures, and the pall of fate that often hangs over his subjects, all suggest that mythological sources have a presence in his art. Claassen said that although he has long drawn directly and indirectly from mythological subjects in his work, the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent swell of extremism on both sides of the equation marked "a change in the mood of my work." He realizes that his imagery has become "more in tune with the darker aspects of mythology than those earlier drawings that openly alluded to it."

Garth Claassen, from "Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers, and the Defense of the Empire," 
charcoal drawings, sizes vary - BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Boise Art Museum
  • Garth Claassen, from "Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers, and the Defense of the Empire," charcoal drawings, sizes vary

In Claassen's new collection of drawings at BAM, this darkening mood has been ratcheted up significantly. The exhibit is the most remarkable portrayal of organized mayhem I think I have seen since Los Angeles/Idaho artist Ed Kienholz's more extravagant productions of the 1970s and '80s.

It was not always so. In January 1998, Claassen had his first solo exhibition at BAM, entitled "Hands in Clay," a forceful display of drawings done in conte crayon. The subject was one he had visited earlier in his entries in the 1995 Idaho Triennial at BAM, and as on that earlier occasion, one could tell he was a master of this rarefied art form. It was strange, somewhat surreal imagery, featuring beefy disembodied forearms and hands giving shape to wet clay on spinning wheels, capturing the essence of the pottery-making process, which he described at the time as the "exhilarating sensation ... of being simultaneously in motion and at rest, the still point in a turning world."

The drawings, done in a brick-red color called sanguine, combined musculature and abstract form, capturing in a sort of stop-action way the labor-intensive physicality of making ceramics. They were intensely sculptural two-dimensional works that, by extension, reminded us of a tradition of art making that seems almost quaint these days. The theme of physical labor has been a recurring one in Claassen's art for a number of years although more recently its connotations have taken on a darker complexion.

Claassen is an anomaly in contemporary art in ways that perhaps make him perfectly suited for a career in Idaho. Although his strikingly original figurative drawings and paintings are unconventional, eccentric, even audacious, he is the epitome of the traditionally trained artist. His art reflects a command of the fundamentals of visual art that used to be drilled into art students, but which have been significantly less emphasized by university art departments for some time. As associate professor of art since 1994 at College of Idaho, where he teaches art history and life drawing, Claassen has been in a position to impart that knowledge to his students while pursuing a path independent of the demands and imperatives of the larger art world today.

The two concurrent exhibitions of new work in charcoal and oil at BAM and Stewart Gallery demonstrate that while his art has changed in significant ways, it has retained that same sense of physical substantiality and mass while its subject matter has grown more complex.

Claassen majored in ceramic sculpture in his native South Africa, completing his graduate studies in the subject at the University of Natal in the late 1970s. And although he has embraced other art forms in his career, in many ways ceramic sculpture has been the bedrock of his work. His emphasis on weight, volume and contour in his drawings and paintings, and particularly his treatment of the figure, comes out of that ceramic studio environment and gives his two-dimensional work its unique character.

Claassen first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar and eventually earned his Ph.D. in art history at Indiana University. He moved to Idaho after having returned to South Africa to obtain his postgraduate diploma in fine arts at the University of Natal and lectured in the history of art at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Long associated with the Stewart Gallery, he participated in the 1995 and 1998 Idaho Triennials (showing drawings and ceramics, respectively), faculty exhibitions and solo shows at the Rosenthal Gallery, College of Idaho, and other group and solo events at institutions in Southern Idaho. Claassen has twice been recognized by the Idaho Arts Commission with an Arts Fellowship, in 2001 and again this year, along with a touring Visual Arts Fellowship Exhibition in 2003.

Claassen's skilled draftsmanship and technique is the result not only of innate talent and dedicated work, but also an academic immersion in the history of art. With master's and doctoral degrees in art history, Claassen brings to his own art an appreciation and understanding of the traditions that preceded him. In his work, we see the echoes of a range of historic influences from the Italian Renaissance to the American Regionalist style of the 1930s, with elements of the Baroque, Mannerism, Romanticism and Expressionism also informing his compositions and visual ideas. These two exhibitions offer an opportunity to consider his talent in depth and observe these and other currents pulsing through his aesthetic.

The art now on view at these two venues is the continuation of a series the artist began in 2003 called "Heavy Dancers." Claassen maintains his newer works are less topical than their predecessors in the series, yet they are clearly related thematically and stylistically. Still, the differences are strikingly apparent as well.

Garth Claassen, from "Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers, and the Defense of the Empire," 
charcoal drawings, sizes vary - BOISE ART MUSEUM
  • Boise Art Museum
  • Garth Claassen, from "Bloated Floaters, Snouted Sappers, and the Defense of the Empire," charcoal drawings, sizes vary

Claassen's "Heavy Dancers and Searchers" show of paintings in 2005 at Stewart Gallery was the artist's reaction to the debacle in Iraq, and as such carried on that noble tradition in Western art of denouncing war. The majority of works were executed in oil stick on canvas or panel, a medium that suits the artist well as it allows him to literally draw with paint, which is his forte. In open, landscape settings under threatening skies, nude sumo-wrestler-type figures, heads obscured beneath buckets or cardboard boxes like after-hour party revelers—Claassen calls them "chunky, blundering titans ... bent on confronting some as yet invisible enemy"—stumbled or strutted about, searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Serious as the subject was, the paintings had a certain playfulness to them, an attitude, if you will, which made them entertaining as well as provocative.

The Michelangelean figures striding the countryside in those works were reminiscent of Goya's famous anti-war painting Colossus, done in response to Napoleon's invasion of Spain in the early 19th century, but with an updated twist. The noticeably mechanical movement and demeanor of Claassen's figures are in part intentional, conveying their robot-like status, but are also due, again, to the influence ceramic art had on his artistic development.

"My sources for ceramic sculpture tended to come from mechanical objects, and the drawing techniques that work best for planning those sculptures turned out to be useful when I began representing the figure," Claassen said.

Early on, Claassen learned figurative drawing from texts that explained the structure of anatomy as analogous to moving mechanical parts, and it seems likely that it has continued to show through in his work.

His new, perhaps final, chapter in this ongoing series once again introduces a dual set of characters. The show fills a gallery practically floor-to-ceiling with 85 unframed charcoal and mixed-media drawings, pinned up right next to each other as they were in his studio when BAM curator Sandy Harthorn first viewed them. The effect is a tour de force rendering in graphic black and white of a nightmarish, grave new world that has evolved from the policies of an unbalanced government. The conquering is done, the "defacto empire" established, and now the defensive walls are going up, of the type we see lining the Mexican/U.S. border and the Gaza Strip. But things are not going as well as planned, it seems. In fact, it is the construction project from hell as Claassen's "bloated floaters" and "sappers" work at cross-purposes, and the fortified borders never quite seem to come together.

The naked buffoons sporting buckets and boxes on their heads who peopled the 2005 "Heavy Dancers and Searchers" paintings have evolved into bare-chested grimy brutes (sappers) in overalls and heavy, snouted or snorkeled helmets, who probe the Earth with tools and machinery, lace the waters with explosive mines and generally seem to undermine the very structures going up around them. Earth-moving equipment with giant, sharp-toothed shovel heads swoop down like long-necked dinosaurs. Initially, Claassen placed some figures' heads in boxes draped in black cloth like old-fashioned cameras, a long single lens protruding to emit intense beams of light. Either way, the blinder-restricted vision of these focused guys on the ground makes them understandably oblivious to what is going on around them.

Above them drifts an even weirder breed of empire denizen, the "bloated floaters." Inspired by a costume design for the blow-hard ruler in a production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, these rotund, humanoid blimps (complete with buttocks and genitals) in simple night shirts hover overhead echoing the shape and mindlessness of the barrage balloons with which they share air space. Whether conducting surveillance on the activities below through huge lenses, or actually supervising and assisting the activities below, these human Hindenburgs are hopelessly inept. Despite frantic efforts by miniature minions on the ground with remote controls, the floaters seem at the mercy of any stiff breeze that sends them crashing into their own projects. Like King Ubu, these ineffectual creatures are essentially full of hot air.

Garth Claassen's studio walls. - BOISE ART MUSEUM

Compositionally, the charcoal works on paper are particularly dynamic. The confidence with which Claassen executes such complicated designs is impressive. Along the right wall of the gallery is a sequence of same-size drawings like movie stills depicting sappers and floaters struggling with installing the walls, and it is not going well. The strong diagonals and verticals of the disarrayed wall sections amidst the round head gear, muscled anatomy and floating, lightweight forms sets up a tension that almost vibrates. Claassen's use of a mixed media of charcoal, gesso and oil paint stick in the three-panel work of sappers pushing a train of barges through dangerous waters is beautifully rich and painterly, visually appealing despite its fascistic overtones.

Claassen's talent for caricature should not be overlooked either. One of the best images in the show is a large charcoal of one of the figures whose sole garment is a black-cloth draped box over its head, a single lens sticking out like a rifle. He wears this apparatus like a crown, proudly striking a regal pose as if he were Louis XIV draped in ermine. In Claassen's world the emperor indeed has no clothes.

Stewart Gallery's exhibit of Claassen's recent paintings entitled "Blunderings" is part and parcel of this ongoing series of works, continuing the theme in color with his signature oilstick/oil paint on masonite panels. If you were wondering where the bloated floaters sleep at night, these paintings will address your concerns. The most intriguing works at Stewart are those of the floaters squeezing out of their "hangars" for another day on the job, again negotiated by the minion with the remote control. Despite their supposed lighter-than-air facility, these enormous figures exude discomfort and struggle of movement, to the point where our heart goes out to them. In this context, they seem even less threatening, which may not have been the artist's intention.

Claassen conceded that the paintings in this show are more of an experimental nature, a departure from his last work. Indeed, the design of the Floaters Exiting Hangar panels is daring with the twisting, soft unfolding of the bloated figures oozing out of the rigid geometrics of the hangars creating an ingenious contrapposto or asymmetrical balance to the figures. While these paintings do not have the vibrancy of those exhibited at Stewart in 2005, they have a pathos that we are drawn to.

BAM curator Harthorn has been a supporter of Claassen's art for many years. "Garth's remarkable body of work is a narrative of the human condition. His confidently drawn figures are powerful, bold and lumbering. For me, they represent everyman's slow and persistent effort to overcome the foibles of war, politics and life's ongoing struggles," she said.

The art on exhibit at both locales is also a provocative commentary on our surveillance society and the inclination to seal off situations we refuse to come to terms with. In their graphic intensity, the charcoal works particularly evoke Goya's famous series of etchings, "Disasters of War."

Most of all, Claassen's new body of work impresses upon us the futility of any endeavor to preserve a status quo founded on the misguided, self-righteous use of power. It is an old message, as the art of Shelley and Goya attests, but Claassen has made it compellingly relevant to the 21st century. When considering these works, Shelley's words about the fate of Ozymandias' monument to himself are worth remembering: "Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away."

Garth Claassen will talk about his new work at Boise Art Museum on First Thursday, May 7, at 5:30 p.m. The show runs through May 31.

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