Hard to Watch

Ken Shorr isn't in the business of beauty, but that doesn't make his work any less compelling

One of Ken Shorr's friends recently posed a question to the artist.

"Kenny," he said, "why can't you make one fucking thing that is pretty?"

The friend had a point. Just take a look at Shorr's one-person show, Action Through Redaction, at MOCA-Tucson.

You'll find pools of flesh-colored plastic that look like what would be left over if a human somehow melted—or was burned to death. And four creepy puppet heads pinned to a wall, all of them spewing solidified hot glue from their mouths. Old cloth book jackets covered with fur and other books embedded with dangerous weapons. A photograph of ordinary-looking middle-age people in overcoats, clutching suitcases, rushing through a dark forest in terror.

Shorr himself is hard-pressed to find anything in the 150-work show, curated by Joanne Stuhr, that anyone might find pleasing to the eye.

"This is the prettiest piece I ever made," he told some art fans who came for a tour of the exhibition on a broiling day last week.

The large-format digital photo shows a set of twin boys dressed in white jackets and shorts, an image Shorr "appropriated" from his large collection of photographs of the Alps. Picture a couple of Von Trapp boys, wearing what they would have had on before they had to flee across the Swiss mountains to escape the Nazis. This might rate a medium on a pretty-o-meter, until you consider that Shorr has blotted out their eyes with India ink, and the ink drips ominously down those once-pristine suits.

It's not that Shorr doesn't appreciate beauty. Some artists find it in the landscape, he said, and he himself can see the beauty in their painted or photographed representations of desert or mountain or sky.

"I appreciate it but I can't do it," he said.

There's a reason for that. Shorr's art is not about the things that comfort or soothe. It's a cry of outrage about the horrors that haunt him. A sense of foreboding threads through nearly all his complicated mixed-media pieces and videos. And layered images hinting at the Holocaust, police brutality, racial and ethnic hatred, and corporate and political corruption recur again and again.

Shorr has constructed a loose narrative to link these pieces, a written pretend diatribe that features DIM, a figure who is part corporate monster and part violent sociopath (his name comes from a depraved character in the movie A Clockwork Orange).

"I am taken with depraved indifference," Shorr said, and he's not joking.

In one of his short movies, he's pulled from YouTube a video of a police car running full force into a perp in the street. The footage is shocking: not only does the cop slam into the young guy, a swarm of other cops rush in and quickly flip his body over, in a move of callous disregard for his critical injuries.

The scene plays over and over again, but each time it runs we see it differently. Shorr has imposed a puppet couple on the foreground, and for each rerun of the accident, he moves them so that they cover up a different part of the footage. We can never be sure what we're seeing—or what really happened.

For his photoshopped digital works, Shorr's sources are the mass media: magazines, newspapers, books, caches of old photos, album covers—a favorite source is the Casa de los Niños thrift shop. But he never just lets the images be. He manipulates and recombines them, splatters them with ink, layers them in odd colors, adds a puppet or two (puppets are a favorite stand-in for humans), and blots out, or "redacts," important parts.

An old racist image of a black person's face—stereotyped into an Amos 'n' Andy thick-lipped mouth and popped-out eyes—has been covered almost entirely in black. The only things that remain are the white lines of the exaggerated features. He's made us see them in a way we haven't before.

His process mirrors the way photos can lie—or tell an underlying truth.

In one sinister image (all his works are untitled), he has kids in striped pajamas floating above an idyllic picture of a fairy-tale German castle. Those stripes all too easily conjure the uniforms in concentration camps, and combined with the "pretty" postcard view, the image portrays the contradictions of a putatively civilized society engaging in mass murder.

Shorr is technically a photographer—his title at the UA, where he's taught for 30 years, is associate professor of photography. But even as a young artist, he said, he didn't make the kind of pristine Ansel Adams-style images his high school teachers tried to teach him to admire. His early "defiled" photos—splattered with paint—not only got him into grad school at UCLA to study with the like-minded eminence Robert Heinecken. They also won him a place at the Whitney Biennial in 1983.

Born in New York and raised in Phoenix, Shorr can point to both his parents as artistic influences. His father was an English teacher with a prized collection of eccentric books, including medical textbooks whose images of disease and body parts scared his son. Shorr and his mother loved to watch murder movies on TV, of the genre where villains baked knives in cakes.

Two distinct sets of handmade artist books—the re-engineered covers of old books with weird titles (Hospital Color and Decoration) and the books embedded with sharp metal tools—pay tribute to this family history.

But a more ominous family history also helped shape his art. Shorr said he has a personal connection to the Holocaust, though he declined to elaborate on it.

"Almost everything I do has that in the back of my mind. The memory of it, the forgetting of it, the exploitation of it."

Some of the Holocaust pieces are explicit. Nearby those tragic twins in the white suits is a huge photoshopped digital image of an SS officer in uniform. This Nazi is unbuckled, breaking out of yellow harness, and one shudders to think what he might do now that he's unbound.

But once you look for the Holocaust in Shorr's work, it seems to be everywhere. In the blandly normal puppets nicely dressed in suits and dresses, indifferent to lurking evil. In the people with suitcases in the forest, in the floating kids in prison stripe pajamas, in the question at the entrance to the show, appearing on a piece of paper in a typewriter: "Are you our sort of person?"

Even a photo from Shorr's cache of campy nudist colony shots becomes foreboding, laden with a sense of menace. It's a black and white image of naked men and women walking away from the viewer down an outdoor path. Some are still in black socks and shoes. These unsuspecting campers, on a stroll through the woods, suddenly metamorphose into specters, into haunted memories of unsuspecting Holocaust victims heading for the showers.

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