Phil Lawrence presents: One Death/An Installation
A.P.E. Ltd. Gallery
240 Main St., Northampton
The spare but intriguing new Northampton exhibit by local artist Phil Lawrence is something of a paradox: it grapples with a powerful theme in a style that obscures its subject as much as illuminating it.
That contradiction plays into Lawrence’s central idea, which is to remind us, it seems, that an endless portrayal of violence is just as likely to deaden and distance the witness as it is to draw him in.
The installation is devised in two parts: deconstructed chairs lie scattered among rectangular wall hangings, which are packed full of densely-plotted words printed in bold capital letters.
Lawrence is looking to contemplate the vivid horrors of war, in particular two cases of mass civilian death. On July 8, 2014, 24 Palestinian students were killed in Gaza as a result of Israeli military offensives. Then on April 2, 2015, terrorist forces massacred 147 students in Garissa, Kenya.
Most who learn of these horrific acts will have two reactions: a visceral one — that gut feeling of sadness — as well as a mental one, in which we dredge up past headlines and body counts to gauge just how bad, exactly, this violence is when compared to the violence aired on the news yesterday, or five minutes from now.
These reactions, hot and cool, collide strangely within us, and they both resonate within a comment often attributed to Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” That quotation gives this installation its name, and Lawrence cites those words in his printed artist statement.
Each of these paired ideas plays out in the gallery. The image of upended classroom chairs, each of which Lawrence has exploded and gutted using a pipe cutter, offers a queasy visual parallel to the tragic mutilation of young bodies.
The wall graphics, by contrast, seem to represent the statistical nature of war news. Mosaics of bolded text, cut and pasted into strips, create a lovely visual from a distance, resembling blankets thick with folk-art patterning. Take a few steps back, and the letters stop making sense.
In other words: read enough headlines, and the details blur into what resembles — rather unsettlingly — a grand design, serene and blameless. One death can make a splash, but a sea of deaths appears perilously calm.
A.P.E. Gallery hosts One Death through Sept. 27.•