GETTYSBURG — As adults, we are told to avoid the sensitive topics of politics and religion in polite conversation.
New York-based artist Michael Scoggins has found a way to express his feelings and communicate his opinions through his art. He makes these discussions all the more palatable by taking on the persona of “MichaeL S.,” who draws, writes and creates addressing the sensitive topics of adults under the guise of a child. A carefully curated selection of Scoggins’ works are on exhibit at Gettysburg College’s Schmucker Gallery in “Michael Scoggins: When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Much like a child, Scoggins works stretched out on the floor of his studio, creating by hand spiral-bound notebook pages on a large scale. Meticulously drawing the familiar blue lines with vertical red line border, Scoggins recreates the paper’s torn edges as if ripped from the tablet. Scoggins describes his art as more than works on paper, rather as “objects” due to the fact that he realistically lines the paper on both sides and purposefully folds and tears the pages to create a three-dimensional form.
After fabricating these pages, Scoggins draws and scrawls text and images. He employs language and symbols to commemorate American history both past and present in a manner that recalls an experience common to most children: that of repetitive sentence writing, memorizing and doodling in a classroom.
The selection of oversized works in this exhibit focuses on Scoggins’ interest in military and political topics. The artist appropriates popular imagery and takes a critical stance on contemporary politics and historical reflections.
Scoggins use of words in his work is both literal as well as symbolic. “Nov. 4th, 2008” appears inspired by a school boy’s in-class writing prompt, capturing the country’s hope and optimism following the first election of Barack Obama. The boy’s excitement generated by that event is punctuated with colorful stars and American flag in the unbridled patriotism of that day.
Words are used more symbolically in “The New Colossus,” which begins as a transcription of Emma Lazarus’s poem that is found on the Statue of Liberty. The poem appears to be edited with words lined out in red pen, significantly changing the meaning of the poem. The final line on the page notes, “Updated Jan. 2012” to signify the changing attitudes toward immigration.
“I will not Commit Acts of Treason” recalls the days of repetitive writing as punishment in school. Dated July 4, 2008, the paged filled with a simple sentence of contrition alludes to the ambiguous interpretation of both the notion of treason and its punishment.
Scoggins’ imagery equally tells a story. In a piece created specifically for the exhibition, “Battle of Gettysburg,” the famous lithograph published by Kurz and Allison in 1884 is painstakingly replicated onto notebook paper. MichaeL S.’s interpretation of day three of the Battle of Gettysburg is more immediate and detailed than the historical interpretation. His perspective takes on the boy’s fascination with the details of war in a more violent and “in your face” way than the sterilized 1884 version.
Reflecting on the cost of war as well is “May 28th, 2007,” a rendering of a military cemetery drawn on Memorial Day. The rows of identical graves adorned with American flags pay homage to those who paid the ultimate price of war.
Departing from the notebook paper creations is a bold line drawing seemingly ripped from the pages of a coloring book. The recognizable faces of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney stand against the American flag in “Dang.” The playful crayon colors filling the lines downplay the serious admission of guilt in the accompanying speech bubbles.
Spilling off the walls and onto the floors of the gallery are several sculptural works. A child’s carefully drawn soldier is represented in “Red, White and Blue Warrior.” Not only has MichaeL S. realistically posed, drawn and colored the silhouette of the soldier, it has been cut out with the discarded background left on the floor below.
“Old Glory’s Wake” portrays the hand drawn images of the flags of nine countries in conflict including Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Israel and Russia. The flags represented on paper are crumpled and left in a pile on the floor. The message alludes to the ongoing hostilities and struggles as well as complicated geopolitical issues.
The works in “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” while liberal leaning, are at the same time satirical and provocative. The precision and attention to detail in each piece is obvious. Every fold, scribble and misspelling is calculated and communicates its message on multiple levels. Though created from the perspective of a child, it is not a simple or nostalgic message but instead is complex and critical of the world at hand.
“Michael Scoggins: When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is open until Dec. 12 at The Schmucker Art Gallery. The gallery is located on the main floor of Gettysburg College’s Schmucker Hall, located at the intersection of North Washington and Water streets in Gettysburg. Admission is free, as is parking in visitor lots on campus. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For further information, visit www.gettysburg.edu/gallery.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent much of their 25 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.
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