"The study of history may be a search for clarity, but in the end what we have is less of a tidy explanation than a melee of names, dates, and costumes, with some blood splashed around for effect." So writes Bean Gilsdorf in the text that accompanies her one-woman show at Mission: Comics and Art. The Last Charge rushes towards us with all of these tensions intact, precise and clear in craft and intention, but full of details that mask and complicate each other.
One of Gilsdorf's many strengths is her melding of form and content. She typically appropriates her imagery; most of the work for The Last Charge consists of collaged, mass-market Civil War images printed digitally onto linen, a technical choice that echoes her concern about the glut of historical detail and our desire to freeze it in narrative form. Even when she works sculpturally, she maintains the tension. Untitled, the one piece of sculpture in the show, consists of a shelf of black, masonite silhouettes with brightly-painted edges to keep them distinct from each other. Viewed at varying distances, the silhouettes merge into one solid "image" and then fall apart again.
Gilsdorf also works large, so that the viewer becomes immersed in her works, amplifying their emotional resonance. In Ruin, for example, we come face to face with a black-and-white image of a soldier, printed on linen over a painterly swath of gold acrylic. At 44" tall, the work disturbs because you're meant to meet the soldier's gaze, and yet where the face should be, the fabric is threadbare -- the face reduced to a ghost-image.
The centerpiece of The Last Charge, Allegory -- a battle scene -- consists of three large panels sewn together for an end product that is 69" tall and twice as long. Gilsdorf uses a wide variety of figures, from soldiers on horses to covered wagon trains, all placed in the midst of a fragmented landscape dotted with Antebellum Era houses. Towards the center of the work, the figures fall into chaos around an out-of-proportion cannon cart; the resulting pile of bodies dominates the center of the work. From a distance, it could be a Neoclassical painting, but the moment you look closely, the illusion falls apart. Figures overlap and distort, or appear as fragments. Blots of grey acrylic paint obfuscate each and every face, perhaps providing the allegory alluded to in the title: the loss of the individual in the attempt to construct an overall whole.
The field of history is the ultimate field of battle: the site of a longwinded, inconclusive fight between individual detail and attempts at overarching narratives. And yet in spite of this guaranteed futility, we persist in our attempts; despite the murkiness of words like "truth," histories are still written; stories are still told. The Last Charge immerses itself in these complexities and emerges stronger for it.
Bean Gilsdorf's The Last Charge is on display at Mission: Comics & Art through February 27, 2011. For more information for visit missioncomicsandart.com.