September 11: In Retrospect

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Art Spiegelman’s tribute to the lost towers in New York.

An exciting new exhibit was unveiled in the W340 Gallery of the AJB this past Friday.  Two works taking a symbolic look at the tragedy of the September 11th terrorist attacks were placed on a limited display.

Casting a somber mood across the room was the cover art from the first issue of the New Yorker magazine post-9/11, created by New York based artist and comic illustrator Art Spiegelman.  The shadowed black towers of the remembered World Trade Center are cast ominously upon a pale black background.

Contrasting this feel of a funeral procession from Spiegelman is a piece by Chicago mixed media artist and poet, Tony Fitzpatrick.  Well known for producing album cover art, such as Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers, and for mixing found articles and cartoon-like characters in his art, Fitzpatrick’s take on September 11th in Monument to a Standing New Yorker has a complexity that commands a viewer to pause and contemplate the powers at work.

A flatly drawn, two-dimensional male figure dominates the forefront of this piece.  He has a similar appearance to a chalk outline from a crime scene brought to life, perhaps consisting of concrete, but cracked and riddled with holes.  Jagged breaks are apparent in his arm and leg, yet he attempts to harness a fire hose that snakes through the bottom of the frame.

Although this figure makes a cutting appearance, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the upper left corner, where the twin towers reside.  A ghost in a top hat floats amongst other figures and smaller brick edifices, and a disturbing trio of black balloons fly to the sky beside the doomed towers.

What this all means is left to the individual, but the overall appearance of this image is worn and tattered, like New York itself.  Both works are effective in conveying a message of import concerning 9/11, and they share the use of symbols to tell their tale.

Spiegelman reduces the actual towers to renderings, replica shadows of what previously stood.  The image conveys a sense of mourning, and is symbolic of the loss felt by America and emblematic of the absence of the twin towers from New York’s fabled skyline.

The simplicity of this image belies its underlying complexity and that is what makes its statement so poignant.  No deciphering is necessary, no decoding required.  It’s easily understandable.  This image could be shown to a six-year old, a foreign tourist, or a farmer from Nebraska and all would immediately grasp its meaning.  A viewer is left with no room for interpretation and none is expected.

Spiegelman’s presentation also allows the New Yorker to produce a cover referential to September 11 without betraying its artistic style.

Tony Fitzpatrick | Monument to a Standing New Yorker

Tony Fitzpatrick | “Monument to a Standing New Yorker”

While Fitzpatrick’s image requires a viewer to spend more time absorbing all that is being conveyed.  New aspects reveal themselves as one looks at the print in more detail.  This drawing is a conglomeration of symbols, each telling a piece of the story that collectively speaks to the greater impression left in the wake of 9/11.  Absent an explanation by the artist, a viewer could feel shut out by the messaging shared between the artist and his subjects.

It isn’t necessary to be alienated by Fitzpatrick’s telling, it just necessitates a moment for everything to be processed through the eye and into the mind.  The images will pass along an unspoken meaning to each viewer, to be assembled as one sees fit, leaving considerable room for interpretation.

Having only seen Monument to a Standing New Yorker briefly, I’m curious what it will say to me the next time we meet.  I recall the New Yorker’s cover from its original publication, and it is as striking now as it was in 2001, but can only be read one way.  Fitzpatrick’s work allows the mind room to roam and what it will unveil upon later viewings remains a mystery.

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