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"The Hellfire Story" is a tough pill to swallow. Consisting of 300 text-based placards and frames separated into two sections within SPACE Gallery, Bangor artist Kenny Cole's work contains vital artistic interest without exactly being fit for full consumption. In the foyer, 125 framed brush-and-ink images track the drone missile from its early 1960s inception to its deployment today. With droll, caustic wit and a fastidious hand, Cole's images ironically commemorate these milestones according to a series of politicized stylizations. His work doesn't present information as much as bludgeon his audience with it. This artistic bombardment presents obvious parallels with the subject matter, but the sheer volume of the work contains another virtue still.
To borrow an allegory from Borges, the Internet is the Library of Babel of our era. It contains tons of relevant information, but that information is only useful if you know exactly how to look for it. In similarly overwhelming fashion, "The Hellfire Story" replicates this trick. Each frame is flush with boring, legalistic text that either wraps around or obscures some distracting semi-relevant cartoon drawing. Though rendered in legible brushstrokes, Cole's text is utterly unmediated, lacking punctuation and line breaks. Frankly, it is a chore to absorb. Despite knowledge that it offers useful information about national practices of contentious ethics, it's as headache-inducing as reading the customized MySpace page of your reclusive uncle.
As if shining a light into his own labyrinth, Cole has circled (non-lineally, Chutes-and- Ladders-style) letters in each frame to form words that parse each image to its pithy, bare-bones message. In a piece detailing test missile firing in California circa 1980, Cole circles "ANATHEMA," "TORN," and "NUT." In an image containing dozens of unmanageable words bifurcated by a blood-red thermometer, Cole has formed the phrase, "DEMENTED PIRATE OGRE PARTIES." At its most base, it's an obnoxious assertion of subjectivity telling us how to interpret otherwise unremarkable art.
And therein lies its genius. In a universe where devastating and incriminating facts are irrepressibly available in abundance, it suddenly depends on a subjective overhaul, a willful assertion of ethical belief to employ those facts to fit cultural standards. To take a recent example: by revealing as he did in his recent memoir that he authorized water boarding and other forms of torture on Gitmo detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, George Bush somehow didn't indict himself. Neither does simple public awareness that he violated international criminal law indict him, nor does that public awareness, apparently, strengthen or validate international law. In the vast field of ethical relativity, decoders and arbiters are necessary, and Cole, however importunately, is doing just that. An argument could be made that "The Hellfire Story" aestheticizes war, that Cole is translating the liberal sympathies of his audience into accolade and personal gain the same way the US government channels public funds into private-sector war initiatives. The 175 wall-mounted placards in the gallery room arouse these sympathies with a
Principal among the many ethical questions "The Hellfire Story" raises is this: if robotics replace our human military (though not our opponents), will our moral and psychological aversion to war be similarly replaced? Without that aversion, is Obama's decision to fire missiles into Pakistan still an act of war, or is it more akin to "poking" Kenny Cole on Facebook? In his exhibit, Cole doesn't extend an answer. Our world raises innumerable ethical quandaries; Cole's work merely demands that they be considered. In the meantime, SPACE Gallery will host numerous films, rock shows, and dance parties within the walls of this aestheticized mausoleum. Whether or not the public cares to see "The Hellfire Story", or enjoys its work, is irrelevant — it still exists.
Nicholas Schroeder | Portland Phoenix | November 24, 2010
2010 "The Hellfire Story" Portland Phoenix review by Nicholas Schroeder