Unapproved Art

Lawrence Gipe takes propaganda images and gives them new interpretations

Painter Lawrence Gipe knows propaganda when he sees it.

For years, the UA painting professor has studied "totalitarian images" generated in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia—government-approved photos of robust Aryan youths or of the myth-drenched Russian forests.

So when Rosemont Copper flooded Tucson last fall with an expensive color brochure extolling open-pit mining in Southern Arizona, Gipe's "propaganda radar went off," he says.

The cover had a picture of wholesome young girl standing in an idyllic landscape. Behind her, unmolested coppery mountains glowed in the Arizona sun, and the girl raised her head up to look at the pure blue sky, her old-fashioned blonde braids curling around her neck.

"For me, she's a Hitler youth," Gipe says. "I have images of Hitler-youth propaganda. I've been studying these visual references for years. My alarms went off."

Gipe made a last-minute painting of the girl, "re-contextualizing" the original photo in oils on panel, and hurried it over to the Tucson Museum of Art for his solo show, Approved Images. He had a perfect place for the painted "Rosemont Copper Girl, 2011." He hung her in the middle of a wall of paintings that re-create Nazi government photographs, all of them drawn from his personal archive of thousands of old photos.

One painting depicts a happy couple basking in the benevolence of National Socialism in the 1930s. (The original German title was Sturme des Lebens, or "Storm of Love.") Another is a bizarre picture of a Seminole Indian woman in Florida, photographed in 1938 for a German how-to photography journal.

Gipe is not claiming that Rosemont hopes to re-create Nazi Germany in the Arizona borderlands. Not at all. But through the painting, he is saying that propaganda, whether in the hands of a corporation or a totalitarian government, uses patriotic, family-friendly images to obscure the truth of the dirty work they're actually doing.

"The propaganda industry is about getting people to believe things that aren't true," he says.

The lovey-dovey German couple is the polar opposite of the Jewish families being kicked out of schools and jobs in the 1930s. (The camps would come later.) The exotic brown-skinned Seminole woman belies the Aryan obsession with racial "purity." And that idyllic Southern Arizona landscape in the Rosemont brochure? It will be bulldozed, butchered, banged up and obliterated.

Curiously, the young girl in the picture holds a solar panel in her hands. The message, as Gipe reads it, is, "Hey hippies, if you want solar panels, you have to dig deep open-pit mines."

In his art, Gipe has worked the propaganda minefield for some 25 years.

"The main idea is to use an image that's ideologically tainted, that comes from artists who were working for the government or were government-approved," Gipe explains in the TMA gallery. By re-imagining familiar propaganda images as paintings—and making them much larger than the original photos—"I try to re-examine them," forcing old images into viewers' consciousness in new ways, and not-so-incidentally playing with the tension between photography and painting.

People tend to see photos as truth, Gipe says, even though they're manipulated as much as or more than other art forms. "If I paint an 'approved' photo, it's no longer approved. That's my game."

Raised in the country outside of Baltimore and trained at Virginia Commonwealth and at Otis/Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, Gipe was the son of a father who was a big-time fan of old film noir movies. Young Gipe not only loved the films' black-and-white aesthetic; he loved the metaphorical black-and-whiteness of their themes, the simple heroism of the good guys, the unambiguous evil of the bad.

A childhood immersed in this imagery "affected me profoundly," he told TMA curator Julie Sasse in an interview published in an exhibition brochure.

But Gipe was enough of an aesthetic rebel to want to bring the movie stills—and government photos—back around to painting. Born in 1962, he went to school at a time when everyone wanted to do new media. "My instructors said painting was dead. It was a rebellion to drop paint on canvas."

His paintings may be about ugly subjects, but they're beautiful. A trio of industrial paintings picturing post-war England are among the most alluring I've seen in Tucson in a long time. Gray, moody and atmospheric, they're filled with softly painted smokestacks and bridges and slanting slate roofs. Misty skies merge with colorless rivers that only palely reflect the light.

They're inspired by British government photos from the 1940s through the 1960s, meant to show the nation picking itself up by its bootstraps, but they hearken back to the 19th century. That's deliberate, Gipe says.

"I'm painting in an impressionist style, to send it back to 1868," Gipe says of "Manchester, 1968," a 2009 painting drawn from a 1968 photo of factories along a river. "I'm collapsing time, back to the beginning of industrialization."

Paintings once romanticized the new factories that were taking over the landscape and regimenting workers' lives. Gipe's melancholy paintings conjure up a century and a half of industrialization and its discontents, turning the plucky optimism of postwar England—and the early industrial age—into a world-weary pessimism. No nation yet has been saved by the machine.

Gipe himself uses mechanization to create the paintings. Like the old-time painters of the Renaissance, he projects the image onto his canvas in the early stages, drawing and painting the lines of the tiny photographs he's planning to transform. "Then I do washes, then white and black, adding vegetation, shadows." A painting of a Russian birch forest—an image crucial to government power from the czars to the Communist commissars, Gipe says—turns ultimately into a pattern painting on the trees.

A painting of a grim apartment block in Warsaw—the first one built there by the Soviets—is "my Pollock painting," he says. Its all-over grid of right-angled balconies and windows, systematically painted white, gray and black, is "non-hierarchical. It's formally like a drip painting."

"Kunsthalle, 1937" depicts the galleries of a 1937 art show put together by the Nazis. Hitler famously staged a show of "degenerate art," to demonstrate the savagery of expressionism, fauvism, cubism and the like. A few blocks away, the Führer put on the first Great German Art Exhibition of approved art.

"Images of this show don't come up too often," Gipe says. "I found a small postcard photo in the late '80s."

Gipe's painting of the Great German Art Exhibition, based on that rare postcard, is a sideways view into the galleries, with each room filled with conventional imagery. "Freshly minted kitsch," Gipe calls it.

Rembrandt knock-offs and German forest paintings frame a sculpture room where a stag stands near a 3-D ballerina. A couple of sculptural nudes are a surprise, but the statues of both a man and a woman stare forward stolidly, stripped not only of clothes, but of life.

Gipe says he wonders "how artists fit into the template of approved art. Were some unwilling? On a personal level, what would I have done? I think about their dilemma and how lucky we are not to have that dilemma. Censorship is a horrible thing."

The U.S. is a free country, he notes, and "artists can do wacky stuff."

They have the freedom to work for a mining company, spreading its propaganda, or they can attack its deceptions in a painting. Their choice.