Flight Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade had a horrifying decision to make. The RAF tail gunner was returning from a raid over Berlin on March 24, 1944, when his Lancaster bomber was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters, caught fire and began to spiral. With his parachute consumed in the flames, Alkemade had to choose between the terror of falling to a quick death or burning alive in the bomber. He threw himself from the plummeting craft at an altitude of about 18,000 feet.
Life and death are magnified and accelerated in war. But Jim Leedy's stupefying 30-foot-long wall installation, "War," an ash-colored stretch of skulls, spines, limbs and rib cages, shows us precisely how magnified, how warped, life becomes in proximity to war. A cross-section of a mass grave, the bones here and there interspersed with the wings of plaster-cast swans, "War" is an affront. Implacable, it strips away aesthetics, mocks any sanitized, TV-ready approach to war, is not interested in what you think. Assembled in 1999, the installation dominates Witness: Perspectives on War, an anthology of statements by a diverse group of artists at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. The exhibition runs through January.
The show pivots on Leedy's overwhelming piece, which, according to gallery director Holly Swangstu, is exactly as difficult to store as you would imagine a heavy and unstackable span of brittle, poky bones might be. Assembling the piece, according to Swangstu, was cathartic, purging Leedy of his persistent Korean War nightmares; she says he once rejected an offer by the Museum of Modern Art to purchase a section of "War," opting instead to retain all of its bony, spiny expanse as a whole piece. Neither art nor war is properly executed in half-measures, and the pieces here, including works by Justin Bell, Denis Reichel, Skyler Bieberly, Matteo Potter, Misha Kligman and graffiti artist Gear, are striking in their scale and complexity.
Past Leedy's formidable assemblage, beyond a 6-foot-high skull made of cast skulls of regular size, is John Thein's three-panel oil painting "Wounded Knee/Earth and Sky," a response to the genocide of American Indians. The work is so masterly in its compositional sweep and execution of detail, you're surprised to learn that Thein, an associate professor of art at Creighton University, is known primarily for his sculpture. Ambitious at an almost Hieronymous Bosch scale, the painting depicts agonized figures suspended and impaled against a sickly yellow sky, beneath which no ground is visible, a bleeding people with no land. It is, in its way, as daunting as Leedy's wall of skulls, as demanding and assertive.
Kansas City artist Jim Sajovic's mixed-media paintings "Plegyas' Bark" and "Gates of Dis" date back to Operation Desert Storm and deploy the apocalyptic imagery of black-plumed oil-rig fires looming over the desert like some dark reckoning. Whereas Thein's work condemns with fire, sinew and accusation, Sajovic's work is orderly. He links and pairs his images like a rational man attempting to make sense of the profane. "Demo," of more recent vintage, weighs the image of a young Iraqi boy holding an AK-47 against that of a precisely rendered Hummer; the confluence of an imperialistic invasion with the fetishistic military consumerism conspicuous among certain upper-middle-class American drivers is an obscenity, Sajovic says in his orderly way. With his interest in systems and moral incongruities, he invites comparison to novelist Don DeLillo, who also tends to work on a large canvas.
Tim Guthrie's series "Extraordinary Rendition" consists of huge, closely observed graphite-on-paper portraits depicting subjects, from the shoulders up, in a variety of stress positions. Guthrie deliberately excludes his figures from any context, placing them against blank backgrounds, but their expressions of suffering strongly suggest the ugly Abu Ghraib face of this American decade. All of which would be very clever if Guthrie hadn't used a flagrantly manipulative name for the series; the viewer will inevitably bring these associations to the work without prodding. Still, these are accomplished, undeniably evocative pieces. And what they evoke is unsettling: something about the poetic conceit of human life's fragility. We are incredibly fragile, right?
Nicholas Alkemade's fall from that burning plane was broken by the branches of pine trees and a cushion of fresh snow; he limped away with a sprained ankle. He sat out the next year of the war as an honored prisoner of the Nazis, who were impressed with his tale of survival.
Perhaps war invites maximalist artistic responses, not because people are so easy to kill but because often they're not. People can, in fact, be astonishingly hard to kill, surviving auto-mangling pileups, emerging unscathed from life-threatening illnesses, falling from tremendous heights and walking away. To kill people on a mass scale, then — to wage war — is a huge, murderous endeavor, one that calls for an artistic response just as big.