War is hell, but you wouldn't know that on a visit to Laguna Art Museum's latest ex•pose show, featuring the anti-war graphite and paper drawings of artist Dana Harel. “Between Dreams and Nightmares” features little we can instantly chalk up to military aggression—no flags, tanks, guns, mass graves. It's curator Grace Kook-Anderson's thorough notes and program that put everything into perspective: The blank-faced subjects on display are a dreamscape of the walking wounded, often with animal familiars, poised, fading away, half-erased like an old Xerox left in the sun.
Daughter of a soldier, wife to a soldier and a soldier herself, Harel has been surrounded by the male experience of war and says, in an accompanying interview, that she experienced things in the military she's only just been able to process. That internal struggle, largely silent, grasping and stubborn, is not unlike the central image of her show: a naked man embracing an armful of feathers.
Based on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel (or God, depending on the version you read), Jacob kept fighting until his aggressor had blessed him, even after he'd been wounded. In Harel's Wrestling God, Jacob's face touches the now-fading face of the other as if kissing him, their heads surrounded by darkness, the lower half of the angel (and Jacob's victory) literally slipping through his fingers as a blast of light threatens to take over the picture. The artist has added dirt to the drawing, “grounding” the fantastic in reality and further recalling the Biblical idea of man as a creation from the dust of the earth.
Equally strong is When I'm Gone, the faint touch of gold on the buttons or epaulets worn by a man on horseback the only thing that overtly offers a suggestion of the military. As with Lot's wife, he's looking back at an unseen devastation he has escaped (or been part of), white, still, frozen in time, left hand open, weaponless and poised as a mannequin's. His out-of-proportion horse, with its massive head and dead eyes, gallops into an unseen oblivion.
The rest of her images aren't as powerful, but several are memorable in the way they suggest vestigial psychic and physical damage: Not Telling Them Apart Until the Very End 1 & 2 features a figure in profile, hiding behind a handful of dead branches; the second more defiantly looks at the viewer, freshly picked flowers in hand. I Know Something of Steep Places 3, 2 & 1 are heads devoid of bodies, like clay puppets from antiquity. Eyes closed, faces in repose, death masks resting on cobblestones . . . or victims of war whose heads have been stuck on pikes?
In No Longer Hidden, leafy vegetation sprouts from a helmet or skull or skull in a helmet—it's unclear—suggesting the earth is giving up its dead. Gate Keeper 1 wears a victor's laurel wreath on his head, but Harel deliberately leaves portions of his body (and the chair he's sitting on) missing, suggesting he's left a good portion of himself on the battlefield and can be toppled with a slight push.
Gate Keeper 2 is also perilous in body and throne, but he's holding a hyena in his lap, the two faces not all that remarkably different from each other. Modeled in clay, and then drawn, Harel's intentionally crude sculptures—we see the impressions of her fingers on the faces of her subjects—also have religious possibilities: Could the headlong drive to war be something built into her subjects by their creator (Harel or God)?
That rough, dysmorphic physiognomy coincides with the Lynchian-bad-dream aspect of the show—and makes for a discomforted viewing. The images aren't attractive; they're sinister and sad, intentionally so—that change in aesthetics a direct (and very successful) contrast to the delicacy of detail in her previous work.
Where she goes wrong is in a way I find common among many women artists: Their work is too outwardly focused on the men in their lives or as a reaction to the men in their lives. Harel may say the works in the exhibition are about internal struggle—and many of her images suggest there's some dark dreams inside her—but her reliance on a specific gender as particularly atavistic, even if it's true, deflects her own participation in the war effort. I would also argue that by avoiding the obvious political influences behind war—racism, exploitation, religious hatred and greed are all absent here—Harel is talking around the subject instead of directly to it.
If she were to personalize things, moving it closer to her experience than to the outside influence of men, making it about the airing of her own dirty laundry, the resulting work would provide a useful insight into women warriors (and women peacemakers), something deeper, richer and far more radical than what's on display here.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.