It’s not hard to see why, when BYU Museum of Art’s Curator of American Art Kenneth Hartvigsen and his staff set out to take the measure of artistic responses to the international refugee crisis, they wanted to include Connecticut artist Rick Shaefer’s spectacular narrative allegory, “Refugee Trilogy.” Inspired by catastrophic events that continue to befall Syrian families fleeing the extreme violence that seven years of civil war have visited upon them, Schaefer’s monumental trio of triptychs follows these victims of indiscriminate violence at the hands of their own government all the way from their devastated homeland, across tempestuous seas, and up to the borders of those safer nations where they seek, and increasingly are denied, refuge. What sets this trilogy apart is the way it employs the history of painting during a long, analogous era of art history: from the Romantic Age, when newly self-aware “citoyens” first struggled to establish civil rights for themselves, down to the present day, when cutting-edge art often takes current events as subject matter. “Refugee Trilogy” is Rick Shaefer’s call to take action, dressed in the timeless vesture of some of the world’s finest art.
It’s an ambitious project, one seemingly guaranteed at least some degree of success. Surely there can be few moments in the history of art better prepared to represent so much cruelty, violence, and suffering. The atmospheric cataclysms of Turner, the wartime atrocities of Goya, Gericault’s shipwreck—surely the most recognizable nautical disaster in all art—and such frantic crowd scenes as Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”—proved the ability of artists to portray even the most dramatic and epoch-making events of a tempestuous age. In his trilogy, Shaefer borrows precise details from the Baroque Age’s stately wars, the French Revolution’s reign of terror, and the Enlightenment’s sublime encounter with Nature. Then, by skillfully rearranging the familiar faces, figures, and atmospheric landscapes that populate these historic depictions, he turns out new compositions divided between belonging to the history he quotes and his own inescapable membership in this one.
Shaefer’s bravura drafting seeks an audience ready and willing to lend the virtues of the past’s great art to the “great” events of today. Why shouldn’t clarity of judgment derive as much, if not more so, from the aesthetics of composition and execution—from the artists’ choices—rather than the egotistical errors of tyrants? And there is the power of actual images, which come closer to the core of conviction than words can. Those who turn their backs on their own time because they find it lacking in civility, informed consideration, or a temporal perspective longer than it takes to flip between channels might be persuaded to look instead to the future, as the Romantics did during a similarly conflicted time. After all, one reason we have art is because we all can profit from regular, visual recalibration of our collective judgment.
All that being said, the appeal to the look of the past can only take us so far in deciding how to live today. The ostentatious clothing on display among these victims is hard to connect with today’s refugees. Muscular, half-nude men evoke powerful individuals brought down by the sweep of history, but not the huddled masses who have little to lose beyond their lives. Animals that attack in 19th-century paintings personify a threat that no longer exists: today they scarcely survive outside zoos and nature parks and would more accurately be seen fleeing alongside the humans they battle with here. It works only so long as the viewer concentrates on peripheral facts: the fires in the distance, the frightened eyes looking out of the frame at things we don’t see.
It’s the artist’s classic dilemma, when a conceit that starts out well breaks down as the work continues. Shaefer or his gallery must have been aware of the problem, for they sent along a statement that attempts to justify the work using references to Contemporary artists working with similar themes, but who, on careful reading, take very different approaches. One is the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who has constructed installations in Munich and Vienna using refugees’ life vests to make their plight feel real to an audience that otherwise has nothing but video images with which to connect. The other, Francesco Tuccio, is a carpenter on the island of Lampedusa, the goal of boats crossing the sea to Italy that too often arrive broken and empty, or not at all. From scraps of flotsam left behind by these flimsy craft, Tuccio fashions crosses that, according to the text, symbolize “both the plight and the hope of desperate refugees.” These are legitimating comparisons to Shaefer’s themes and goals, but suggest if anything that his choice to go with his strength, his ability to deploy skills most of today’s thinly-trained artists don’t possess, cannot help him do what others have shown works now.
Meanwhile, one connection the text quoted from above doesn’t make is to William Kentridge. During the 1990s, this South African artist made large charcoal drawings that he repeatedly photographed, rubbed out, redrew, and photographed again until he produced animated films that depict events similar in their violence and distressing content to the Syrian diaspora. The technique Kentridge invented, which like Shaefer’s demands powerful, utterly competent conception and execution from the artist, vividly captures something else: the feeling that life is, at best, a rough first draft, not the kind of polished performance most art fosters. What, then, can be said of Rick Shaefer’s invention?
It’s hardly necessary to justify a desire to find a new way of representing the world’s refugee crisis. Images of desperately poor mobs, here squeezing onto hopelessly unseaworthy boats, there crowded together at border crossings, and eventually struggling to survive in makeshift camps are hardly calculated to ennoble the displaced, nor are statistical presentations of their enormous numbers and daunting needs likely to encourage other nations, each struggling with its own economic problems and social conflicts, to fling open their doors in welcome. If anything, the substitution of a more attractive public image, or at least a more approachable one (even if that means a photo of a single dead child), sounds inspired, especially in a world long acclimated to public-relations firms’ manipulation of reality to achieve partisan purposes.
In fact, it’s one of the advantages of traditional art media that they can alter what they re-present and visually clean up a scene, even before they perform the aesthetic magic of making even a horrible event not just easier to contemplate, but beautiful, at least in its composition, coloring, and the welcome demands it makes on a viewer to think before taking action. Still, arguments about the validity of a given artwork, or citations of other works, be they ancient Roman sculptures or last year’s gallery shows in famous cities, may alter critical opinion for the better or worse, but they can’t change the way a personal encounter with the work affects the viewer. “The Raft of the Medusa” is the centerpiece of a great story, but the painting hanging on the wall of the Louvre, while still powerful, produces no excess of pity, terror, or sympathy that can be transferred by the audience member to today’s tragedies. If “Refugee Trilogy” only succeeded in camouflaging the Syrian refugees by substituting wealthy, white Christians for poor, dark Muslims, it would be a failure. Worse, as I realized watching BYU students snap cellphone pictures of it, it would become a racist act of misrepresentation.
Or then again, it may be an indictment of art in general, a broader parallel to Auden’s plea that “poetry makes nothing happen,” that someone standing before Rick Shaefer’s trilogy is more likely to admire the artist’s skill, or compliment himself on knowing his own cultural history, than to feel any emotion at all relating to the victims whose aid this show was meant to inspire. But to tell the truth, if Ai Weiwei’s “Remembering,” which uses 9,000 Chinese children’s backpacks to convey the scale of loss experienced when poorly built schools in Sichuan collapsed on their occupants, is any more successful, it’s only to the degree it appropriates the grief-stricken testimony of one child’s mother.
Maybe the problem lies in trying to make something commensurate in scale to the industrial-scale atrocities modern life makes possible. Perhaps the only way art can capture the pain of the refugee is to invoke that pain in the way it actually happens: one suffering person at a time.
Rick Shaefer: Refugee Trilogy, BYU MOA, Provo, through Sept. 29.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.