Reading Between the Lines and Weapons
Benjamin GenocchioNew York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.:Dec 18, 2005.  p. 12 
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Copyright New York Times Company Dec 18, 2005

THE Housatonic Museum of Art is displaying an exhibition of the work of Matt Ernst and Rob Roy, two midcareer American artists with much on their minds. Most prominently, both are interested in war, and the conflict in the Middle East in which the United States finds itself embroiled. Their images, in ''Icons for a New Century,'' are an artistic amplification of this.

Looking at the museum's Web site, I discovered one of Mr. Ernst's paintings credited to a Max Ernst. It was an uncanny mistake, for Max Ernst (1891-1976) was an early 20th-century modernist who made one of the most powerful antiwar paintings, ''Europe After the Rain,'' (1940-42), about the collapse of European culture during World War II. (The work belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.) Matt Ernst (no relation) and Mr. Roy are his 21st-century heirs.

The show itself is relatively meager, just a single room with a half-dozen or more of each of the artist's works. But each piece is soulful and affecting, the artists resisting direct, confrontational moral and political statements in favor of allusion and metaphor. Basically, they reflect back to us distressing images of our everyday reality.

Mr. Ernst paints one thing, at least as far as this exhibition is concerned: helicopters, or more precisely, swarms of them in the air. Allusions to documentary images of the Vietnam War are obvious, but the choppers may as well be circling skies above Basra, Tikrit or Mosul. They look threatening and mean, ready to strike.

So why paint helicopters? I don't know, but they are among the hardware the nation reaches for in times of trauma. They are also powerful and persuasive symbols of technological advantage, whirling our soldiers in and out of hot spots whenever we please.

Mr. Ernst builds tension on the painting surface by layering the paint. It also looks to me as if he has collaged bits of cardboard, paper and other materials onto some of them, although the wall labels say they are only acrylic on canvas. Still, his technique gives his helicopters a wonderful sense of three-dimensionality, and of floating midair.

Looking at Mr. Roy's paintings, you may begin to wonder either what world you are living in or how the world in which we live could have gone so awry. He juxtaposes images of jets, bombs, oil derricks, gas pumps, soldiers and other signifiers of wealth and war. Looking at them you get this weird, almost nagging feeling of being called to account in some way.

And I guess we are, for Mr. Roy, more than Mr. Ernst, has a message to convey. His paintings bear witness to events, documenting the moment, you might say, for some future time when we can look back at the political waywardness of the period. He is doing a service of sorts to society, even if artistically the works are so-so.

''Witness #32'' (2005) is his most dramatic painting, the artist cutting and fitting together smaller sections of stretched canvas in the shape of a gun. This painterly assemblage is covered in tiny pictures, which when read together present the current conflict in Iraq as a colossal folly. Or that is their none-too-subtle subtext.

Mr. Roy's other works here are a series of prints of oil storage tanks, over which he has placed images of cowboys, helicopters, guns and other military hardware. The allusion to events in the Middle East again is obvious, perhaps a little too much. But they still have the power to put you in a questioning frame of mind.

There is not much else to say about this show, other than it is likely to leave you feeling angry and depressed. To me, it is an exhibition about perishing idealism, and about how a society at war can somehow bliss out on the spectacle of military hardware while overlooking the body count.

''Icons for a New Century'' is at the Housatonic Museum of Art, 900 Lafayette Boulevard, Bridgeport, through Jan. 13. Information: (203) 332-5052 or on the Web at

''Swarm,'' by Matt Ernst, and ''Oil Tank #11,'' below, by Rob Roy. War is a dominant theme of ''Icons for a New Century,'' an exhibition of the two artists' works at the Housatonic Museum of Art.