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Problems of the History Painter: Niagara, Detroit and "War Paint"

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Elegant women in Niagara's "War Paint" exhibit make the conflagration seventy years ago into the best of fun.

by Mike Mosher

I. In Her War Paint

In the summer of 1976, my friend Chris Tons and I were college students gallivanting around Latin America. We wrote a lot of songs on his guitar, later performed in our band the Windbreakers, including “World War Two (What'd Your Daddy Do?)”. Its first line was “Our dads participated in something important/They fought in the world's best war”; for its guitar solo, we tossed in the memorable whistled melody from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. While we were out of the country doing this, back in our home town Ann Arbor, Michigan, Niagara and Cary Loren were reshaping their band Destroy All Monsters around various smart psychedelic rock musicians, even bringing in some older proto-Punk ones. I started humming “World War Two” at Niagara's “War Paint” exhibition at the Re:View Contemporary Gallery, for the show’s elegant women make the conflagration seventy years ago into the best of fun.

The dozen paintings in her “War Paint” series are like a dozen new songs on an album. The paintings are very attractive. Color is sometimes gorgeous, atop subtle underlying patterns (a motif first explored in her Opium series, here more abstractly). Her color sense is subtler than ever, and several of the paintings had sandy colors in patterns like the camouflage on uniforms and vehicles in recent desert campaigns. Flat color in a face is often off-register, a technique Warhol used with photo-silkscreens layered upon painted canvases. When painted precisely, this runs the risk of being predictable and arch, yet Niagara generally avoids predictability by adding other techniques, like brushing the wet paint of a figure's outline to the side, conveying motion or smoke. Smoke, that favorite Art Nouveau motif, also wafts sinuously from numerous cigarettes or gun barrels. The paintings have skillful design, simple direct brush penmanship (OK, paintwomanship), and hesitant lettering that almost suggests the shy way Marilyn Monroe spoke her lines. Stylish women, not a hair out of place, cleanly displayed as in a military-themed fashion shoot, are limned in careful outlines that echo their hard-bitten cinematic spoken lines.

George Orwell wrote in his wartime diary on September 12, 1940:

“This morning met a youth of about 20, in dirty overalls, perhaps a garage hand. Very embittered and defeatist about the war, and horrified by the destruction he had seen in South London. He said that Churchill had visited the bombed area...and at a spot where 20 out of 22 houses had been destroyed, remarked that it was 'not so bad'. The youth: 'I'd have rung his bloody neck if he'd said it to me.”

One gets a sense of Churchill being that insouciant, for in “Churchill-Victory”, Niagara paints the half-American Conservative Prime Minister with the then-American-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's swept-back hair. Churchill didn’t have that much hair in 1914, and was a chrome-dome by 1944. He looks younger and cooler like this.

The all-text “Soldier Speak (SNAFU)” defines nine acronyms, shorthand for various fucked up situations. Niagara's careful lettering reminds me of the Leroy stencil text seen in old EC Comics. Besides horror titles like Tales from the Crypt, that company’s line included memorably-illustrated crime and war titles enough to inspire years' worth of Niagara paintings (have they already?). It's interesting to think of Niagara evolving into a text-based conceptualist like Yoko Ono or Barbara Krueger, but this work appears to be a one-off.

“Treat 'Em Rough, Boys” features Marlene Dietrich in a US military uniform and officer's cap. Is that Air Force blue? Her eyes blue, with blue mascara, her pinned-up hair a reddish-gold, cap and jaunty cigarette at an insouciant angles. The uniforms make us remember Susant Sontag's “Fascinating Fascism”, on the appeal of regalia (especially Nazi), as well as the fierce beauty-seeking aesthetic of German moviemaker Leni Reifenstahl. The caption’s lettering appears Moderne, as one might find on a 1940 federal building. This emblematic image of the show appears on its invitational post card, and is worthy of further contemplation. When I first saw "If You Don't Like to Fight I Don't Want You Around" I wondered about the uniformed girl, bobbed hair, more like an Italian fascist circa 1930s, yet wearing an Army Air Corps pin. Then I read where Niagara said this painting, first in the “War Paint” series, was inspired by a silent Clara Bow movie set in the First World War. The green uniform and belt (and green eyes!) set off the pinkish face and red hair. The white shirts and black ties on these two military ladies, to those of us of Niagara's demographic cohort, evoke the androgynous style of Patti Smith. Or the office-boy look of Detroit's The Knack, whose 1979 “My Sharona" had a rather military march beat.

Red lips in most of these paintings sport cigarettes, essential for 1940s sexiness (and, under its conformist influence, my own mother's eventual killer). “Hot Box Camo" pair of lips with a cigarette, but instead of painted in red lipstick, the lips are camouflage-patterned. She first painted these lips a couple decades ago, inevitably evoking the Rolling Stones logo, but that's OK, like a guitar riff reminiscent of the Stones appearing in a song by her Dark Carnival band. The cigarette is in perspective, like the revolver painted by Roy Lichtenstein used for a TIME magazine cover in the 1960s cover story about guns in America (and put, by Niagara, in a nail-polished woman's hand in the painting “Continue Dying"). However Art Nouveau and sinuous, the curl of smoke from a cigarette might allude to “The Motor City is Burning”, the fires of 1967 riot or rebellion when we were kids. Or to subsequent Devils' Night conflagrations of abandoned properties that tended to house junkies on the night before Halloween, used by Ze'ev Chafets as a metaphor of all that was wrong with the city in the 1980s. Here the lips aren't disembodied, but upon a field of Max Factor pancake, with a black beauty spot; Arlene Dahl had an afternoon show by that name about beauty and cosmetics on ABC-TV (channel 7 in Detroit) in 1966, which the child Niagara must've watched. Yet it's also a surreal evocation in the tradition of Max Ernst's floating lips in “The Hour of the Observatory” (which Niagara reworked, adding cigarette and beauty spot) Salvador Dali's room with a couch in the shape of Mae West's mouth, for what 1940s gal would paint a lizardy green and lavender pattern upon herself? It's even deliciously off-register, as if applied hastily or pushed aside by a rough or thoughtless kiss.

“This is an Active Theater of War”, “C'mon Do You Want to Live Forever?” and “So They Got Us Surrounded...The Poor Bastards" are all somewhat similar in structure and pictorial strategy. In “Active Theater” and “Surrounded” the color of the woman’s uniform is extended into the background and there made more complicated with texture, while in “Live Forever” it’s the uniform that’s a more complex camo pattern. Each woman’s vibrant hair and pale skin are focal points, and the outline of “Surrounded”’s breast in profile pointedly echoes her upturned nose. These three have the poise and armed alertness of military ancestor portraits in an English country house.

Amphetamine was developed for German pilots on long-range WWII missions, while opiates like morphine were valuable as pain palliatives for battlefield wounds. The nurse in "Blast Off" proffers a hypo full, with plunging décolleté and an impish, you're-going-to-like this, expression. The background color, darker near the edges, stains the canvas to vignette the nurse. She's painted in an economical palette of beige skin, white uniform and syringe, red hair, lips, and cross insignia, and blue eyeballs piercing as any needle.

“Kill the S.O.B.s That's Army Protocol” has desert camo on the lady’s shirt and a rich, stone-like background. The grey outline, rifle barrel and text recede a bit while the white cigarette and tobacco smoke, aqua eyes and polished fingernails come forward. Silvery dog tags are a nice detail, and the off-register yellow of the hair creates a light rounding the side of the face. Reflect here how all of Niagara's babes seem to speak with a closed mouth, from pouty, pursed lips.

The gal in “Shoot the Works” has the darkest complexion I’ve ever seen in a Niagara painting, plus good hair. Lena Horne? A Filipina? North African or Middle Eastern, a South American from a non-aligned dictatorship? See, this was a world war, involving not just the American molls and minxes we’re used to see populating her previous violent or menacing painted interpersonal dramas.

“So You're Standing Outside of You and Telling You What in Hell to Do” has camouflage, a cape-like swirl of spiritual energy around the entranced fighting woman as found in some Hong Kong martial arts comics, and a hail of bullets. This is her most ornate, largest and most expensive canvas, criss-crossed with numerous bullet trails made out of diamond-shaped sequins laboriously and carefully pasted upon the canvas. Niagara’s husband Gary must have been up working on it many sleepless nights, glue on his fingers.

The gallery handout includes a bibliography that includes General Lucian Truscott's Command Missions, several biographies of Churchill and Patton, Churchill's and Omar Bradley's own memoirs, and memoirs of those serving under them. A cabinet of medals sits in the corner like something in nearby historic Fort Wayne or small town history museum, plus a few photos of Generals Patton, Eisenhower and cadets from Virginia Military Academy. Niagara, as famous in Detroit for decades as a rock singer as for her paintings, looked great at the show's Opening and Closing parties, and posed for numerous photographs with patrons or well-wishers, towering upon 6" heels, or teasingly sprawled on an outdoor concrete seating pedestal. She’s hot, knows it, and appears to be at the top of her game.

II. War, Uhh, Good God, What Is It Good For?

German cultural critic Walter Benjamin—who one likes to think, if transposed to the right Detroit suburbs sixty years later, might have been a high school boyfriend of Niagara's—famously wrote how communism politicizes art while fascism, conversely, aestheticizes politics. The dilemma of any painter trying to grapple with war, especially a Pop one, manipulating received mass-media imagery, is to determine the appropriate and proper amount of the spice of aestheticization. Especially in our time.

As our generation played army as kids in the sandlots and backyards, the three TV networks spun out WWII in “Combat” (starring Vic Morrow), “The Gallant Men”, “McHale's Navy”, “Hennessey” (not the cognac, a Navy man), and “Ensign O' Toole”, maybe a few reruns of 1950s “Sgt. Bilko”: reconstructions, often sanitized and predominantly male. The Vietnam War raged on when we were in junior high, of which Detroit's Bob Seger sang in both opposition (“2 + 2 On My Mind”) and seeming support (“Ballad of the Yellow Beret”), but the war was winding down as we approached Draft age. I haven't asked her husband Gary Henderson, but Niagara's former companion Ron Asheton probably knew several guys from his high school class in Ann Arbor who were called up. Were any guys from Niagara's high school class sent to Vietnam? When I turned Draft age, my politically-conservative pediatrician—himself a WWII veteran—wrote a letter asserting the asthma that plagued me in childhood should excuse me from military service, and, per his recommendation, I was classified 4-F. He’d worked too hard to keep me healthy to see me Mekong Delta cannon fodder.

Ever since spending a weekend early 1972 with my artgang re-interpreting Lady Butler's painting of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo as a mural in our high school, I've tried with varying success to incorporate war into my own painting. When I was in college, history painting was in low repute. My Painting grad thesis show three decades ago was preoccupied with Central American revolution, going on at the time, and was populated with Latina revolutionaries who resembled the determined, sexy women in my San Francisco neighborhood. After the overseas invasions that followed 9/11, every painting I did seemed to include Iraqi or Afghan corpses, refugees, or US troops (beside the requisite Detroit strippers and semiconductor circuit diagrams). With Bush as President, who could do otherwise?

Now the Afghan and Iraq wars are generally kept from daily life, though small town Michigan suffers, and there’s a messiness to veterans' under-supported lives when they return. About his service in the first Gulf war, Saginaw rock musician Donny Zuzula will only admit that there was a sign on his tank “No Fat Chicks”. War is simply not a campaign issue in summer 2012, though I hope to see the re-elected President turning Bush and Cheney over to International Criminal Court.

WWII is generally depicted in masculine imagery, airplanes, tanks, battleships, and where women appear it’s in their newly found roles as welders, in machine shops, in overalls, bandanas to hold their hair, often in full make-up. Niagara once repurposed Howard Miller’s “We can do it”, canonical image of a “Rosie the Riveter” wartime factory worker, sleeve rolled up, so she’s had her eye on the imagery of our parents’ generation. After the war, domesticity was restored, and wives were generally relegated to the role of caring for Baby Boom babies and kids.

Women in wartime in revealing torn shirts were a favorite cover image on men's adventure magazines, the kind Niagara's friends Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley still might find in the mid-1970s at the Blue Front market near their college house of (as well as significantly bluer porn). The girls with guns in the “War Paint” series are more demure than they've ever been on Niagara's canvases. No bare breasts, lingerie, or even especially eye-catching cleavage. These corn-fed God-fearing mid-western farm girls have gone through basic training and are doing the job that America needs doing, so they can soon be reunited with their beaux fighting in regular (men's) regiments.

I wonder what would have been the response to attend this with a member of "the Greatest Generation", the WWII veterans. An old guy might dismiss these cross-gendered fantasies: they didn't want women in uniforms, they wanted them in satin or sheer silk. If they knew a woman in the women’s armed forces, their happy memories begin when they both got out of their uniforms. Maybe Niagara will paint General Patton and a dame next. Or Eisenhower and his secretary Kay Summersby, perhaps sweating through their tryst where Ike couldn't get it up. Or perhaps lovely photographer (and Man Ray’s model, lover and teacher of photographic solarization) Lee Miller, who stripped down to bathe in Hitler’s tub in Munich. I don’t think der Feuhrer’s own liebchen, fraulein Eva Braun, was photographed in anything but her girly clothes.

III. Maintaining One’s Position

Every military painting commemorating military victory might be as staged as a Hollywood film, whether Velasquez's “Surrender at Breda”, Ucello's “Battle of San Romano” (a favorite inspiration of Saginaw painter Matt Zivich, who won a UM Alumni Show award this summer for his complex Civil War battle, “Helter Skelter”), or Salvador Dali's "Battle of Tetuan”. When asked in the 1970s to make a movie in Hollywood, Stan Brakhage said he only wanted to film a three-hour nude battle on horseback, with every big-name actor and actress available; if he couldn't make that, he didn't need the help of a Hollywood studio.

The gallery wrote some hooplah about the “War Paint” paintings' “subtle and personal references to our current state of affairs, as the world community struggles economically, politically and socially in various conflicts that question our behaviors and the future of our society”. Yet these paintings could just as easily be of elegantly bedecked Sforza and Medici ladies in the Renaissance, or the slave-dealers’ fashionable concubines on glass paintings sold to tourists in Dakar, Senegal; or painted and feathered plains Indian warriors, Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Or Marie Antoinette and her attendants dressed as milkmaids, to comment on the economic conditions of etc. etc. etc. When an artist seeks sexy images of fighting women with guns at the ready, one finds attractive Israeli sabra girls with guns defending kibbutzes in the 1950s or insurgent Centroamericanas resisting Ronald Reagan’s contras in the 1980s. Contemporary female suicide bombers in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, their self-destructive weaponry unromantically hidden under voluminous garments, just aren’t Niagara pinups. During the writing of this piece the first American woman in space, 1980s astronaut Sally Ride, succumbed to cancer, and female American gymnasts performed excellently in the Summer Olympics in London. Yet America's most memorable image of a woman in military uniform remains that of Lynddie England, abusively guarding Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and putting them through indignities for the camera out of boredom.

It's surprising this series wasn't framed in an appropriate rhetoric of feminism, of women taking command, depicted entering combat situations sixty years before they generally did. I'm glad Niagara is not showing us bullets ripping apart stage Nazis or, more problematic, yellow peril Japanese stereotypes of the era (University of Kansas printmaker Roger Shimomura did some effective serigraphs on these motifs, as well as his family's wartime incarceration in the US). Still carrying a torch for Seventies revolutionary pin-ups like Patty Hearst and Angela Davis (“Got a sweet black angel/Up upon my wall…” sang the Rolling Stones), I'd like to see Niagara tackle WWII partisans, ethnic-looking women in forests and villages, with guns. She might have used some of the Vargas girls painted on the noses of bombers and fighter planes…but those were essentially pop paintings to begin with so really don't need redoing.

War is government-sanctioned crime, its blazing guns just as murderous as the gangsters’, but for a collective purpose. Real death only intrudes in a painting shown apart from the “War Paint” ones, in another gallery space that requires entrance from outdoors, a memorial portrait of Niagara’s friend Mike Kelley (1954—2012). The canvas also sports a cynical quote from the Westland, MI native, though the painting’s appearance on the Gallery website without it suggests Niagara added it as an afterthought.

Ultimately there's no war on exhibit here, only morale-enhancing fantasies of the home front. And Hell, I'm caught up in 'em too. What's not to like? There’s nothing in “War Paint” that couldn't go in a stylish, hip recruiting office or American Legion hall. These paintings are as restrained as a black man in the White House; paintings for Obama's age of adult responsibility and perpetual wound-down wars. Niagara might be compared to Michigan sculptor Marshall M. Fredericks, famous for his “Spirit of Detroit" at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center downtown; she probably saw (climbed upon?) his “Boy and Bear”, or his whale fountain, at Northland Mall in suburban Southfield. Fredericks received some major commissions for war memorials in cities in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, his figurative style rooted in Art Deco and Moderne, and often complementing architecture of that era. Marilyn Wheaton, former Detroit Film Office director, is Director of the mid-Michigan museum dedicated to Fredericks, and appeared at a 2011 museum fund-raising event that saluted military veterans, wearing her father's WWII US Army uniform.

There’s no reason for the artist Niagara to feel forced to maintain a “bad girl” pose in her mid-fifties. Every artist deserves multiple mid-life departures in style; while her clothes fit beautifully, there may be outdated parts of a persona to be cast off. She might be here compared to Iggy Pop, whose recent singing in French and predilection for ballads have gained him critical sneers for his recent albums Preliminaires and Apres. His French songs, and slow, low crooning of pop standards appear unexpectedly mainstream, but he may yet squeeze his characteristic subversion from the source material. Let's see where both Iggy and Niagara take their new directions, how they each really make its threads and potentialities his or her own.

IV. The Home Front

In the early 1980s I occasionally worked as a civilian bartender in the Presidio of San Francisco, the lovely, woodsy US Army base at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. When I called it “my heroic military service” recently to a faculty colleague and veteran (whom I saw in uniform in facebook), she glared and growled “Uh uh. You were never under command”. She’s right, I couldn't have been sent overseas, and I realized in the telling I was just dressing myself up, like a dog-tagged starlet in a Niagara painting.

Let us return to Marlene Dietrich purring “Treat ‘Em Rough, Boys”—to google “Marlene Dietrich US Army uniform” brings up various images, but none with her in garb as smart, tailored and masculine as what Niagara depicts her in here. Dietrich’s military costuming during the war was done in part to visibly Americanize the heavily-accented German refugee, while Wehrmacht troops were singing her namesake “Lili Marlene”. Hers are images of wartime entertainment, something from a Bob Hope USO tour revue and US Savings Bonds publicity stunts. Yet images from even second-rate 1940s movies are exciting or mysterious, and thus memorable, and Niagara knows that.

These paintings in Niagara’s “War Paint” series aren't about war, they're about dressing up and playing army. They’re about war movies, or publicity stills from them; war without war, or the smiles away from the war. Imagine an afternoon showing on Bill Kennedy at the Movies, Rita Hayworth in her big 1947 follow-up hit, “Gilda of Guadacanal”. Or a “Dirty Dozen”-like B picture—two-fisted, not a tearjerker “women’s film”—where 1940s criminal girls were given a chance by a judge to enlist, and earn their freedom in combat. Somebody fund this movie, fire up Kickstarter, to star Niagara as the officer in charge. Watching war movies as a kid on Detroit TV, weekday mornings with Rita Bell and afternoons with Kennedy (the avuncular one, not the PT-109 hero in the White House), Niagara probably wondered why the machine gun was always in the hands of John Wayne, Tyrone Power or Randolph Scott. Why not Betty Grable, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, or Judy Holliday? Rich in allusions to art history (Warhol, Lichtenstein), edited smoothly with allusions to film history (Dietrich, Bow) and military history, the sunny Bill Kennedy at the Movies, roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done attitude of Niagara’s “War Paint” works might just be one viable to renew and reinvigorate Detroit. Let us look back to move forward.

For Detroit is where these were painted and first exhibited, the works of an artist whose website is . Advocates of rapidly industrializing their own nations, both Stalin and Hitler loved Detroit and Henry Ford (and, unfortunately, Ford’s anti-Semitism), and hoped to produce in their lands a “peoples’ car” as cheap and widespread as the Model T. Detroit called itself the “arsenal of democracy" even before Pearl Harbor and when the shooting war began for American troops, for President Roosevelt had used that phrase in a 1940 speech to encourage production to benefit our allies. During the War, B-24 “Liberator” bombers soon rolled off Willow Run assembly line on Ecorse Road in Ypsilanti every 55 minutes, beating the previous standard of one a day. The US government gave compensation for GM plant in Germany destroyed in bombing, perhaps foreshadowing the 2009 bailout. Niagara could be, or may inadvertently be, creating paintings as deliciously rich in contradictions as the Motor City itself.

Detroit’s own heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, enlisted in the Army, and was photographed in uniform, but there were a few blacks at the Re:View Gallery's Niagara events. A young black female journalist was interviewing the artist during the closing event, and twentysomething black women (artists or art students?) were at the opening reception. Hiawatha Bailey, the black White Panther, whom Niagara may have first met through Destroy All Monsters bandmates Mike Davis and Ron Asheton, attended the opening reception. But during both events black youth from the Cass Corridor neighborhood walked by warily, not intrigued enough to go in and join the party, as Ann Arbor faculty brats (whom college-age Niagara so enticed when she lived there) might surely have, confidently feeling welcome in an art gallery. This racial discrepancy suggests there is one more bomb crater of contradiction in the act of exhibiting such a unified gung-ho, all-in-this-together vision of World War Two in the heart of the Motor City.

For in the middle of the War, Detroit erupted in a major race riot. In the city overcrowded with stressed and ill-housed workers recently brought from the south, there had been violence over integrated housing and a walkout when black workers were assigned to the assembly line. Finally, blacks and whites at Belle Isle on the evening of June 20, 1943 were itching for a fight, and (according to a supposed eyewitness excitedly recounting it in the 1960s) both were being thrown from the Belle Isle bridge into the river. When news that women of both races were assaulted this reached the city, people streamed into the streets looking to kick members of the other race's ass. Black passengers were pulled off of streetcars and beaten as police watched benignly, cars were overturned and torched, and only blacks (17 of them) were shot by police. An Italian-American physician who tried to help the injured was killed, and the death toll after two days of mayhem was 34.

Paradoxically, perhaps this event is the distant 1940s violence Niagara could best tackle, moving from single figures or gun-solved domestic duos’ dénouements, to the scale of Lady Butler’s major painted work or Rosa Bonheur’s horsepower. In strange homage to Jon Lockard’s Manoogian Center black history murals on the nearby Wayne State University campus, I'd like to see her commissioned, by the City of Detroit or the Charles Wright African American Museum, to paint a big allegorical representation of the 1943 riot for its seventieth anniversary, one in which two gangs, one white and one black, of well-coiffed pretty girls in tight clothes face off, kicking and punching and tearing hair, with brickbats in action and guns blazing. This girl fight would acknowledge Detroit's troubled wartime history, yet present it in the attractive and wickedly exciting way that this artist can so well.

At the 2012 Venice Biennale, Mike Kelley said he felt his 2010 “Mobile Homestead” boyhood-home reconstruction failed as public art, and that he couldn’t return to the past Michigan moment he knew. A certain historical forgetfulness might be the “creative destruction” that new capital (both financial and cultural) must bring to the deeply wounded, too-moribund city for any kind of revival, just or unjust. For Detroit is a gun-toting city whose troubled history—like the 1940s trope of an enticingly beautiful woman with a terrible past—presents us a smoky, kissable mouth, one with camouflage lipstick.

Mike Mosher wrote about Niagara in Bad Subjects #82: M(other)hood.

All paintings by Niagara, courtesy the Re:View Contemporary Gallery, her website; "So You're Standing Outside..." from Detroit Metromix, Lee Miller from Lee Miller Archives

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