War is the theme of Stephen Andrews’s recent McMichael exhibition, “Aftermath,” curated by Sarah Milroy. Adjacent is the blockbuster exhibition “David Milne: Modern Painting,” which Milroy also curated, including Milne’s lesser-known work as a war artist. Next to the Milne exhibition is “The Sleeping Green,” Dianne Bos’s series of photographs taken at former battle sites along the Western Front. Collectively, the three exhibitions mark the Armistice centenary, and Milroy has further linked Andrews’s exhibition with Milne’s for common ground in their respective portrayals of war.
Milne, who volunteered for duty near the end of WWI and was not sent overseas until post-Armistice, painted abandoned battle sites, a situation coincidentally well suited for an artist who preferred solitude. Andrews likewise draws war scenes after-the-fact but, in his case, strictly from online images. Connecting Andrews’s media-culled work to an early Modern such as Milne is of surprising contemporary relevance. Indeed, a lack of presence on the battlefield relates to how the dissemination of war photo-journalism through online and print media has long replaced the work of the war artist painting pictures in situ. Besides their both eschewing war as a witnessed event, the two artists share formal qualities: notably, Andrews’s work, like Milne’s, uses blank white areas to represent light, a rendering technique Milne called “dazzle spots,” or highlights, representing open space through either white paint or blank canvas. You see a similar technique in some of Andrews’s drawings: for instance, Night Manoeuvres 3 (Flare), 2003, with the luminous yet negative space of a flare as its focal point.
But because of two key differences, such similarities between Andrews and Milne still seem to me insufficient for an overarching curatorial theme. The first is the absence of the body in most of Milne’s works (excepting paintings of his wife and early works depicting New York street scenes) versus Andrews’s stress of war’s impact on the body. The second is the media’s manipulation of war imagery, integral to Andrews’s work. This is an area where there is no means of comparison with the early 20th century artist.
In early 2003 Andrews began culling photos of the second Iraq War from the Internet on non-mainstream press sites. These found images range from mundane scenes of groups of soldiers to dramatic shots of the wounded and the dead. He reproduces these images by meticulously recreating the dot matrix CMYK palette (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) of the original photos with coloured pencil rubbings over a window screen. This technique has remained consistent since his 2004 installation, “The Quick and the Dead.” The resulting pixelated appearance, which visually distorts his images, stresses the divide between battle site and a public not anywhere near its horrors. Pixelation additionally points to how documentarians and their publishers filter or edit depicted events to suit particular biases. Andrews emphasizes this intermediary process by making overt changes among different drawings set in the same location. The eponymous “Interrogation Room” series, for example, comprises two pairs of drawings set in an undisclosed interrogation room. Interrogation Room 1, 2004, depicts two soldiers and a prisoner with the faces of army personnel redacted and a bag secured over the captive’s head. Interrogation Room Erased 1, 2004, depicts the same setting but unpeopled. Here, redaction and alteration enhance what the CMYK conveys; digitally reproduced war photography does not convey what is real.
Two of Andrew’s works relate to global conflict through the body but do not use media images. John’s Back, 2013, and Syrian Man’s Back, 2013, make both personal and political references through representing bodily wounds inflicted in a conflict zone. The “John” in the title is John Greyson, Andrews’s life partner, who was held prisoner in Egypt following an arrest during a government crackdown of a public demonstration. The two drawings depict marks and lacerations on Greyson’s and a fellow prisoner’s backs from a vicious police interrogation. This mix of politics and the personal wrought through the body recalls the content and context of Andrews’s preceding AIDS related work (Andrews himself is HIV positive, and lost his partner Alex Wilson to AIDS in 1993). Consider, for instance, his 1992–93 “Facsimile” series, portraits of those who died of AIDS in Toronto, including his peers.
While “Aftermath” alludes clearly to the wider scope of Andrews’s oeuvre, its association with Milne is tenuous. The body, absent or present, is integral to Andrews’s practice; conversely, it was of minor significance to the hermitic Milne. The representation of the body in war through the Internet and that theme’s linkage to Andrews’s other work might have been a more cohesive thesis linking these exhibitions of fine work.
“Stephen Andrews: Aftermath” was exhibited at McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, ON, from November 10, 2018, to February 18, 2019.
Earl Miller is an independent art writer and curator based in Toronto.