War memorials, stony, solid, and crafted to last, rarely capture the most heartbreaking element of war: life’s fragility. In his ongoing “Lost Men” project, South African artist Paul Emmanuel has erected counter-memorials, ethereal and elegiac installations that strive to capture loss.
In 2014, as Europeans marked the centenary of the start of World War I, he erected “The Lost Men France” on a farm road beside the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The brutal Battle of the Somme lasted several months, and there were more than a million casualties. To this day, farmers in the area plow up bone fragments of the fallen
“Paul Emmanuel: Remnants” at Boston University’s 808 Gallery, revisits “The Lost Men France.” Remarkably, Emmanuel evokes the tenderness of loss without stirring up the easy war tropes of valor and heroism. Battles are full of heroic acts, and it’s easy to lean on them in retrospect to justify tragedy.
Instead, Emmanuel considers the serviceman’s body through a conceptual lens with which we have already framed the female body and the black body, as something society has objectified and used. He presents the bodies of military men sacrificed on the altar of war — or on the altar of the principles and power grabs that spark wars.
Using plaster casts of his own body lined with plastic letters (some are on view, looking like emptied sarcophagi), the artist imprinted the names of many who died in the Battle of the Somme into his skin. Photos of Emmanuel with names dug into his body were made into giant silk banners, which he hung along that farm road in the summer of 2014, well into the fall. Wind and rain battered them. Like the men who fought and died — like life itself — they won’t last. The frayed remnants are on view here.
The names on Emmanuel’s skin are free of rank and nationality: Alfred Danziger. Jabez Nguza. (European colonials were brought in to fight; in South Africa, black men were conscripted, but not allowed to carry weapons). His naked, shorn body is every man’s flesh, vulnerable without the trappings of war: the uniform, the rank, the weapons.
In the accompanying video “Remember – Dismember,” Emmanuel puts on and strips off several crisp uniforms, metallic belts clacking. The video, close in on his body and never focused on his face, returns to his skin, again pressed with the names of lost service people, and occasionally the word “Unknown.”
A documentary about the making of “The Lost Men France” details the grueling process Emmanuel put himself through. Other works on view — preparatory drawings, photogravures in which more names mark the furrowed land — strongly underline the power of the banners. All evoke ghosts of the fallen, haunting the landscape.
Luminous still lifes
Joseph Ablow, a longtime professor of painting at BU who died in 2012, is remembered with a show of his luminous still lifes at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery (the space most think of as the BU Art Gallery).
Ablow intentionally flattened his images of tables: Legs splay, and tabletops skew upward, as if flinging their contents right at us.
“In the Balance” conveys much about his compositional purpose. Ablow’s balance has to do with tension, a push-pull dynamic, rather than a stolid, still symmetry, and he achieved that through tussles of form, perspective, and color. He also imbued shadows with light, and hushed light into shadow. Several vessels sit on a steep gray tabletop that points like a broad arrowhead toward the upper right. There, four iridescent ceramic pieces cast an auburn shadow that blends into the background, cutting a swath from the table. They face off against a single cup in the lower left, rimmed with amber, casting a violet shadow, leaning away from the other group. This one cup is the omphalos of the piece; the other vessels, despite their numbers and their glow, tug against its gravity.
In “Monument,” the sheer pitch of the table, with its blocky legs jutting, makes it tower over us. The table’s side shines like a window transom. A creased white cloth sits atop it all, part rider on a bucking bronco, part sacramental cloth. We think of still lifes as representing tangible forms. Ablow’s still lifes may have recognizable objects with clean edges, but they represent something ephemeral, unguarded, and uncanny.
Spare and bounteous
Next door in the Annex, “Lynne Harlow: Sweetheart of the Rodeo” makes the perfect complement to Ablow’s nuanced attention to light and color. Harlow’s installation, named after a 1968 country-rock album by the Byrds, is at once spare and bounteous — all tone and space.
Enter the narrow gallery and you’re in a cool, white area, facing a curtain of shiny white vinyl ribbons. Through the ribbons, glimpse a warm, yellow space. Step through: Lemon yellow washes the facing wall, and the glossy white walls on either side reflect their neighbor. You, too, may feel swaddled in, or blessed by, the yellow, and its conjured glow, and then cleansed when you pass the curtain back into the white.
Paul Emmanuel: Remnants
At 808 Gallery, Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave.
Qualities of Stillness: Paintings by Joseph Ablow
At Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, Boston University, 855 Commonwealth Ave.
Lynne Harlow:Sweetheart of the Rodeo
At The Annex, Boston University, 855 Commonwealth Ave.
Through March 20.617-353-3329, www.bu.edu/artCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.