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REFLECTING REALITY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the year since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there has been an outpouring of images expressing the nation's shock and grief over the tragedy.

In works ranging from photographs, paintings, drawings and sculptures to performances, installations and dedicated Web sites, artists and ordinary people alike have mobilized their creative energies to memorialize the victims and help heal the nation's wounds.

But with the attacks still fresh in the public's mind, can these efforts truly live up to the experience? What can art tell us about the events of Sept. 11 that we don't already know? What can it make us feel that we haven't already felt?

"One of the highest functions of the art is to trigger emotion," said Michael Shulan, one of the four organizers of Here is New York, a compilation of some 2,000 images of Sept. 11 taken by amateur and professional photographers that opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

"The more you look at the images on TV, the less sense events seem to have," Shulan said. "So it was important to us that everyone who had images of Sept. 11 be allowed to exhibit them. It was only by showing photos by as many people as possible that we could begin to give a sense that this was an event which had struck everyone equally and that had left everyone equally horrified."

The first artworks, which appeared within days of the attacks, were impromptu memorials made out of photographs, handwritten notes, flowers and other small personal items. They were hastily pinned to lampposts and walls on the streets of Lower Manhattan by grief-stricken relatives desperately trying to locate missing loved ones among the victims. The makeshift shrines were accompanied by sidewalk drawings and written messages scrawled in public spaces around the city.

These remembrances were mostly the work not of professional artists but of ordinary people attempting to cope with the enormity and suddenness of their loss. They were spontaneous acts expressing a collective grief. Many honored the hundreds of emergency workers - police officers, firefighters and paramedics - who had lost their lives in the first response to the crisis.

In the following months, more formal works appeared: Exhibitions of photographs were made into books and rushed into print or online; an outdoor light show re-created the fallen twin towers on the Manhattan skyline; and a project was organized over the Internet to collect fabric for a quilt in honor of the victims.

The New York State Art Teachers' Association organized a Sept. 11 commemorative exhibit of student artwork, and Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, sponsored an online exhibition of 2000 works created by New York-area students through its Art & Writing Awards program.

This month, both the International Center of Photography in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington will mount major shows dedicated to Sept. 11.

The ICP exhibit, which opens Sept. 13, presents the work of four photographers who have documented the aftermath of the attacks in the United States and in Afghanistan. The Corcoran show, opening Saturday, brings to Washington a huge traveling show of photographs organized in New York in the days after the attack and includes the work of amateur and professional photographers in order to display the widest possible variety of pictures from the widest variety of sources.

In Maryland, artist Barbara Marcus founded an extensive portrait project at Harford Community College commemorating the rescue workers killed in the attack and its aftermath. The Face of Courage presents dozens of portraits of firefighters, police and emergency personnel (eventually the project will comprise 60 works by 35 artists) painted from photographs submitted by the victims' families to artists around the country who volunteered their time. The exhibit opened last week.

Closer to home, the Beveled Edge's forthcoming group show, Life, Loss, Hope, includes paintings of Muslim women by Janet Mishner and photos of war's aftermath by Tilghman Pitts which reflect on Sept. 11. The show opens tomorrow.

It's probably safe to say that all of these shows will touch a chord with the public. Everyone was affected by the events of Sept. 11, and everyone seeing these shows will be moved according to their personal memories of the tragedy. We have a built-in predisposition to be interested in this subject.

On the other hand, Sept. 11 had such a tremendous impact on the country that it's hard to see how any artwork can live up to the awe of seeing live television footage of the two airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, or the stupefying sense of disbelief at watching the twin towers collapse.

There are few precedents for successfully representing such seismic events in art. With the possible exception of Goya's monumental Third of May, which depicts the brutal execution of Spanish civilians by Napoleon's invading army, the whole heroic tradition of Western history painting looks stilted and old-fashioned to our modern eyes.

Picasso's Guernica, an outraged protest against the slaughter of civilians by fascist bombs during the Spanish Civil War, is the 20th century's most powerful indictment of war and also possibly the Western tradition's last great history painting.

Yet Mathew Brady's photographs of the Antietam battlefield are as gut-wrenching today as they were to their first audiences in New York in the fall of 1862. The camera, with its pitiless insistence on visual fact, has probably done more than anything to strip war of the noble aura painters gave it.

Joe Rosenthal's great photograph of American GIs raising the flag on Mount Suribachi after the battle of Iwo Jima captured an enduring moment (though the picture was later revealed to be a re-creation of events that actually had occurred hours earlier). Most people know it through the monumental statue it inspired by sculptor Felix W. de Weldon and which is now on display at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington.

Whether any artworks comparable to these will ever come out of the events of Sept. 11 is difficult to predict. Television, with its ability to report events live as they happen, has radically altered our relationship to images, and the Sept. 11 attacks were probably the most widely televised event in history. But art requires a certain psychic distance between object and viewer to achieve its effect. Because television already has brought the whole world into our living rooms, and the most calamitous events to our breakfast tables, whatever art grows out of the Sept. 11 catastrophe will have a hard act to follow.

Art exhibits

"Here is New York": Corcoran Gallery of Art, Saturday through Nov. 11. 500 17th St., NW, Washington. Call 202-639-1700

"Aftermath": International Center of Photography, Sept. 13 through Dec. 1. 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York. Call 212-857-0000

"The Face of Courage": Harford Community College, through Oct. 17 in the college's student center gallery, 401 Thomas Run Road, Bel Air. Call 410-836-4107.

"Life, Loss, Hope": Beveled Edge, tomorrow through Oct. 31, 5909 Falls Road. Call 410-366-6711.

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