One of the greatest things about New York City is how art is exhibited all around us, even on the third floor of the shuttered-looking New York Psychoanalytical Institute, where a small exhibition of mixed media works examines a loaded topic: "On Aggression."
Given how innate aggression is to humanity, the venue is appropriate. Exhibition notes remind us that aggression is as primordial as the sex drive, and the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination has used the exhibition as a jumping off point for a series of interrelated panel discussions, the final one of which, "The Politics and Psychobiology of Sex and Violence," takes place on April 5th.
The exhibit itself includes mixed media work by six artists working with paper, paint, stickers, wood, and photography. Each artist focuses on different aspects of aggression, although curiously, none of the works actually depicts violence. The most emotionally wrenching pieces are Alexander Gibson's portrait photographs, "Voices of Rwanda," in which the soulful faces of his Rwandan subjects -- some distraught, some tear-stained, some just empty -- underline the truth of their testimonials of torture, rape, and murder, extracts of which are mounted on the wall beside them.
For the women in the show, aggression -- especially the macho, physical aggression that leads to war -- seems to be a main preoccupation. Joyce Kozloff's series, "Boys' Art," comprises 24 collaged drawings, based on maps and diagrams of historical battles, enlivened in the margins or overlaid with the gleeful stick soldiers and artillery of boys' imagination. "I sometimes make art to try to grasp what is unknown to me," Kozloff explains in an accompanying note. Artist Margaret Roleke adds, "Children's war toys and their packaging become integral parts of my work."
Roleke creates large-scale, dynamic images out of hundreds and hundreds of stickers. From afar, their undulating, uncurling shapes look like abstract patterns. Up close, though, the patterns in "Guns and Stuff" and "Missiles and More" are made up of soldiers, rifles, aircraft carriers, hypodermic needles, hatchets, handcuffs, bullets, and more -- all manner of man-made threats careening around the space in a mad world out for self-destruction. In demure contrast, Roleke's "Pink Men" (image above left & close-up right) is made up of hundreds of toy soldiers, painted pretty pink, mounted on a textured pink background, and going nowhere.
Rounding out the exhibition are two figurative paintings by Joy Garnet, showing a different side of aggression. In "Demo," two enraged protesters are giving open-throated voice to their political passions; in "Emo," a punk rocker's closed-eyed grimace reveals him lost in the howl of his music. For these people, aggression suggests energy, not destruction. What humans need, Garnet reminds us, are creative outlets for this energy.
Finally, Leah Poller's two small sculptures -- "Bed of Nails" and "Army Bed" -- play with conflicting images of pleasure and pain, while Robin Tewes concentrates her thoughts on gender aggression in two provocative oils. There's a lot to think about in this small collection of images, as the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination clearly already knows. - Sue Woodman
"On Aggression" is at the NY Psychoanalytic Institute's Philoctetes Center, 247 East 82nd St., 10028, until May 14, 2009.
Ms. Woodman is an ex-Brit and veteran journalist with a keen eye for detail.