Photo by Jack GouldDid I want to go see "Prisoners of Conscience" at the Anaheim Museum? Do I want eczema?
But unlike the icky, scrofulous, itchy rash, "Prisoners of Conscience" is not a horrible, half-a-bottle-of-Xanax downer. It's actually very sweet and hopeful. It's the Schindler's List of art exhibits, minus the kindly Nazi and the boring saccharine ending.
Eli Leskley's watercolors were painted while he was interned in the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt. He shredded them into large, reconstructable chunks to keep them safe. Later, he used them as blueprints for works with the same subject matter but better materials.
Theresienstadt wasn't a nice place to be. There was the usual threat of being shipped off to the death camp at Auschwitz; food consisted of a piece of bread every few days; children dropped dead from dysentery after being shunted off to the children's quarters, away from their parents.
But Leskley's view of Theresienstadt has an almost Roberto Benigni quality to it, without the squishy, soppy sentimentality. Even Death Rate: 150 Daily, which shows two women holding each other on a gloomy brown canvas, doesn't seem that sad. How can that be? Got me.
Leskley's pen strokes are very fine and sure—almost Japanese. He creates cartoon people whose jolly lines are completely at odds with the pretty script in which he narrates his pieces. One inscription reads, "Eine Wollweste fur ein halbes Brot" (A wool vest for half a piece of bread). Below the caption, two cartoon women in a brown dungeon of a room make what is deemed a fair trade.
In another painting—done recently and inspired by a salvaged sketch—a pretty woman hurries into Theresienstadt's fortress from the bountiful fields outside. She is smuggling a bunch of posies under her coat—a coat she's damn lucky to have. Smuggling any kind of produce into the ghetto was strictly verboten, of course, and punishable by death.
The wall texts next to Leskley's pieces are fascinating. They tell of a visit by Red Cross delegates and how Hitler's propagandists made a film to show the ladies: The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. A painting next to the text shows cartoon ghetto residents scrubbing the streets; the Nazis had decided to fabricate a Potemkin village for the delegation to view.
Below a painting depicting prisoners' "free time," there is a quotation from a fellow prisoner describing conditions in Theresienstadt, where so many artists and playwrights and other well-educated and cultured Jews were kept. It reads, "Today the milk froze in the pot. . . . The cold is very dangerous, and there is a lot of lice in the children's quarter, but there was a premiere performance of The Bartered Bride, the finest I have seen." I hate to sound like Mr. Holland's Opus. Truly I do. But it is the finest sentiment I've read all week. Now, where are the nice Nazis?
Just across the foyer from Leskley's exhibit stands the work of Shahram Shoja, who is currently imprisoned in Iran—apparently because of his dissenting views. It's somewhat befuddling, since, in this exhibit at least, Shoja's views seem almost devoid of political content, focusing instead on touchy-feely platitudes about loving the world and keeping promises to future generations. The 28-year-old cartoonist, whose figures all have bulbous noses like Ziggy or Mr. Magoo, shows visions like Inner Child, in which a dignified man stands before a podium. But here's the kicker: his shadow is busy playing hopscotch on the stage! The secret life of shadows evokes local boy Skeith DeWine's marvelously inscrutable shadow sculptures (they're big, ugly, messy blobs until you see them in a perfect ray of light; then they're generally men with giant penises copulating) and the antebellum silhouettes by MacArthur Genius Kara Walker that acted out horrible perversions on one another across the walls of the Huntington Beach Art Center. Except Shoja is, you know, nice.
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In other sweet oracles, Shoja tells us to deny materialism and lots of other worthy and lofty ideals—everything but "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for." He often uses a calligraphy pen to stand in as a light, a lamp of liberty, etc. This is very annoying; perhaps he was jailed for cloying art? Artists or novelists or songwriters painting about art or writing about writing or singing about being rock stars should have to go out and get real fucking jobs and see what charwomen are dealing with every day—except that Filter song about how hard life is when you're a celebrity; that's pretty good. I would have liked to see less self-aggrandizement about the liberating powers of the pen and more of what presumably got him kicked into the pokey.
There are some hints of that: Shoja apparently has a real problem with organized religion, and seeing as he lives under the fundie Islam faction, I don't blame him. For instance, The Sin shows a man in a confessional; his sin was stealing bread. The Catholic priest (crucifix around his neck and all) absolving him is straight from Molire: he drowns himself in booze and luxury foods while giving penance to a starving man. I can only assume the Catholic priest is an acceptable stand-in for Iran's mullahs; blatantly pointing out their hypocrisy would most likely be a death sentence. Look at poor, scared little Salman Rushdie.
And then, hell. Why not make a pledge to a future generation?
"Prisoners of Conscience" at the Anaheim Museum, 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 778-3301. Through April 1.