War! What’s It Good For?
“Seymour Chwast: Works of War” is curated by Blažo Kovačević, Associate Professor of Art and Design Undergraduate Director Department of Art and Design SUNY | Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY. The exhibition, which opened and the Binghamton University Art Museum with a rare appearance by Chwast in conversation with me, was met with an enthusiastic response to the disturbing yet somehow ironic question “Why are you obsessed with this subject?”, Chwast shrugged and said, “It’s always with us. We don’t learn. We just kill.”
War as Passion
I suppose that an art historian could make the case that Seymour Chwast and his obsession with paintings and prints about war scenes and military materiel have something to do with a latent subconscious yearning for something or other. Or could it just be an interest in Hieronymus Bosch, Jacques Callot or Stan Lee? Seymour’s work is avowedly Seymour’s work, which represents his passion and his alone.
War is one of those passions. When Seymour authored and illustrated his recent book “At War With War: 5000 Years of Conquests, Invasions, and Terrorist Attacks, An Illustrated Timeline” (2017), 100 years after the United States entered the Great War in Europe, he was not attempting to surreptitiously mask some grand philosophical theory about the abuse of power; he was just stating the obvious: horror and carnage have gone on too long with savage regularity. The illustrations in the book are not done in one style, but many befitting the conflicts he depicts.
This exhibition is devoted to his conscientious objection to War. Conflagration has become an obsessive theme throughout Seymour’s latest work, perhaps because his century (and ours) is filled with such precise destruction and demonic methods of eliminating one’s enemy (and friends). He grew up during one big war, lived through others actions and continues to protest. The paintings and sculptures in this exhibition – much of it recent – are not the typical antiwar revulsion as vividly depicted by Francisco Goya, Frans Masereel or Otto Dix. But Seymour feels deeply despite a curious – indeed paradoxical and discomfiting – whimsy to these massive canvases covered with jolly patterns of planes, tanks, soldiers and other lethal weaponry.
Reminiscent of the way a child might draw playful battle scenes – they have a certain overt innocence and covert anxiety – Seymour’s paintings evoke the perception that war is at once frighteningly chaotic and disconcertingly hypnotic. The chaos is obvious with men and machines engaged in acts of destruction – and even in such a colorful and comic depiction, it is apparent that these are pictures of unthinkable cruelty. The hypnotic is more subversive. Seymour’s patterns are pleasantly eye-catching in color and form. They slyly lull the eye into fixating on a certain joy of process before coming to the realization that the imagery is about death. Seymour’s war pictures are meant to trick the viewer, sending a message that is as deceiving as it is cryptic. Seymour is a master of cryptocity.