March 12, 2004



Commentary by
Roger Martin



Individuals' conflicting memories are constantly being revised

by Roger Martin

An 18th-century Englishman, Samuel Johnson, found fault in his day with a school of poetic contemporaries. In their poems, Johnson wrote, "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together."

Given that attitude, Johnson surely would have attacked a show now at the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art.

But 21st-century viewers will understand the show immediately, even if the violently yoked ideas and images it contains make them uncomfortable.

In a landscape drawn by Michael Krueger, a KU associate professor of art, a soldier is hunkered down on a hill in Vietnam.

Yet the drawing also features a basket of bunnies as sweet as a Hallmark card, an empty grocery cart and an image of a slightly shady-looking Brer Fox.

The soldier doesn't see an enemy tank creeping toward him from the other side of the hill.

The drawing is titled "Big Rock Candy Mountain." It might have been called "'Apocalypse Now' Meets 'Bambi.'"

Meanwhile, in a lithograph by Roger Shimomura, KU distinguished professor of art, a birthday cake sits on a table before a window. Strands of barbed wire are visible through the window.

Shimomura spent a few unhappy childhood birthdays in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The Spencer show is called "Conflicting Memories." Steve Goddard, KU curator of prints, and Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Salina Art Center, put it together.

It contains works by Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos, along with pieces by artists from the majority culture.

For all of them, memory is a source of profound conflict.

Samuel Johnson would have two disadvantages in trying to understand this art. First, he never saw a pop-up on a computer screen or channel-surfed. He wasn't assaulted by blizzards of conflicting images, as we are.

Second, those who lived in Samuel Johnson's England held more values and assumptions in common than Americans today.

The show made me think about who supplies the stories that historians then turn into collective memory. Disney Studios? John Kerry? George Bush? Pink Floyd? Mel Gibson? Oprah?

"Many of the exhibited works," writes Goddard in a brochure, "express the contested nature of memory."

But the show is not just about that contest at the cultural level. It's also about conflicting memories within individuals.

I'm thinking of Krueger here. At the exhibit, we were looking at high school notebooks he'd tattooed with the names of rock bands. Then he pointed to some scans nearby of pages from these notebooks. He'd sketched new images on the old pages.

On one page, freshly drawn helicopters were speeding through a tangle of algebra equations he'd penciled years before.

Some of us imagine that as we lie on our deathbeds, our memories will take on a shape or meaning they've never had before and we will find peace. This show casts doubt on that because, in the words of Salina's Hardy, "We all have contradictory histories."

To see as these artists see, we must accept those contradictory histories and accept that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are forever under revision.

That's not easy to do, but it's worth thinking about, which is why I recommend you visit this show. It's up till April 4.

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