Thom Sawyer


John Brown's Body

We are all natural Nazis, fascists, murderers, full of repressions and hate.
—Raphael Montañez Ortiz

There is an anger that drives one, not to suicide or even to contemplate it, but to place oneself in a situation which has as its outcome only two logical conclusions—a miraculous triumph over ones's enemies, or one's own death—so that the line between suicide and martyrdom is drawn so fine as not to exist.
—Russell Banks

Several smaller bodies of work make up this series focused on fear, hatred, revenge, retribution and justice. The work attempts to draw out such concepts through personal experiences set against narratives of previous centuries. Two specific time periods—Nazi Germany of the mid-20th century and antebellum America of the mid-19th century—help frame these deep seated human conditions, impulses and ideas. By bringing the past forward, the work explores history's recurring relevance: its immediacy of people, places and events thought long removed.

The first smaller body of work, This Nazi Cuckoo Land, takes its title from William Shirer's The Rise and the Fall of Third Reich and Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler. The starting point of these paintings is located at the violent end of Third Reich, when Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's sycophantic propaganda minister, read to him from Thomas Carlyle's History of Friedrich II of Prussia. One passage in which the image of a turbulent sky giving way to a new sunrise provided futile hope to Hitler and the last remains of the Nazi inner circle as the end of war quickly approached:
Already the sun of your fortunes stands behind the clouds and soon will rise upon you.
Such fervent but grossly misguided beliefs lie at the root of this series of word portraits in Nazi typeface. Some literal, some invented, they stand out against the afterglow of romantic Western sunsets. These seemingly incongruent elements, drawn from the last days of Nazi Germany, western landscape painting and character types ("Dirty Dog"; "Asslicker"; "Nutbag"; "Coward") combine to create a typographical catalogue, imbued with an ersatz sublime, the true nature of which, rather than enlightenment and peace, is coarse, oppressive and threatening.

This Nazi Cuckoo Land reveals archetypes cast from a high order of evil evoked by Hitler's Germany. The second smaller body of work, titled Their Foot Shall Slide, deals with the inescapable redress awaiting these and other types. The title of the series comes from David Reynolds' book John Brown, Abolitionist and Tony Horwitz's book Midnight Rising. In both books, the authors describe John Brown's vehement reaction to the United States' acquiescence to 19th century southern slave holders: although publicly outraged, in a private letter to his wife, Brown indicated he had no wish to have such groups cease their acts of aggression, writing, "Their foot shall slide in due time." Reynolds and Horwitz identify the source of Brown's phrase in the Bible's Book of Deuteronomy, which refers to inexorable punishment and justice: "To me belongeth vengeance and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand."

The hate, repression and violence surrounding Nazi Germany and slavery, as well as the revenge, retribution and justice that followed those events, are tightly woven through all of human history. While these elements are found in large, far reaching and deadly struggles, they are also part of exchanges that take place daily on a much smaller scale. The cycles of repression and retribution make up a powerful facet of humankind's everyday normal.

The images of Their Foot Shall Slide mix both the historical and the immediate. The text contained in the drawing It Will Kill You is taken from Thaddeus Stevens' 1868 comment about the political survival of President Andrew Johnson, who stood in the way of Reconstruction and granting equality to blacks. Stevens' words assume a place in contemporary discourse that is both insightful and inciteful.

The immediate is found in a seemingly benign material and annual event: pumpkins carved into jack-o'-lanterns. Once Halloween has passed, the hollowed out gourds, each roughly the size of human heads, are placed in the garden to compost, becoming grossly distorted during the natural, unrelenting process of decay. Just as in This Nazi Cuckoo Land, where words and phrases serve as surrogates, pumpkins become stand-ins for specific portraits or humankind in general.

The paintings and drawings that result use steady, methodical marks, lines, shapes and colors to suggest a flat, non-rendered or non-aggressive quality. Conversely, however, the twisted, split flesh brings to mind the violence of gaping wounds or catastrophically cratered forms, like that of Mount St. Helens on a human scale. The marks and their plodding persistence that fill each image with complex density, shift, when considered carefully, to suggest a more aggressive, unbending quality similar to the pull of inevitable decay found in the natural world.

Revenge exerts an equally inescapable pull among humans and exists at many levels and to widely varying degrees. For example, in a 2013 interview, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005, described an experience with a political opponent:

I will put him in the corner, just like he did with me. I still need time, but one day the time will come for this, and I am already looking forward.

The desire for revenge and retribution also takes shape throughout the arts, as in Lord Byron's 1819 poem Mezeppa:

For time at last sets all things even
And if we do but watch the hour,
There never yet was human power
Which could evade, if unforgiven,
The patient search and vigil long
Of him who treasures up a wrong.

Or in singer/songwriter Nora Jones' 2012 murder ballad Miriam:

You know you done me wrong
I'm gonna smile when
I take your life

Other images in this series simply include what is left after the flesh of the pumpkin completely rots away: the desiccated stems resemble a collection of bleached bones or big-game trophies. It is as if the most vehement urges of revenge, retribution and justice clear nearly everything in their wake.

A final group of images alludes more directly to John Brown's continuing relevance: White Rage (Snow) and White Rage attempt to bring the past forward while examining the often unseen and overlooked relationship between deep national histories (slavery and the life of Brown) and personal, everyday experiences (a nondescript, residential street of a small town). In tandem with this idea, the images were given greater form through a 2014 Washington Post article by Carol Anderson titled "Ferguson Isn't About Black Rage Against Cops: It's White Rage Against Progress." In the article (and subsequent book), Anderson discussed the discord and unrest surrounding recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the long, centuries-old shadow cast by racism. The simple but powerful words "White Rage" hover over images of a manicured, privileged neighborhood insulated from much, if not all, racial turmoil.

The title of this overall series—John Brown's Body—is derived from the 19th century song that often included the lyrics: "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave; His soul's marching on." The same melody was later converted to The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe. Both songs contain ideas and imagery of retribution and justice that resonate across time. Since the Civil War, Howe's The Battle Hymn of the Republic has been referenced and used numerous times by, among others, John Steinbeck (his Grapes of Wrath) and Martin Luther King Jr. It is also played at official functions of the United States.