Catalogue Essay

Uncivil War, Unforgiving Nation

Lilly Wei

Around sixteen or more lushly painted, moderate to grandly scaled paintings with ravishingly built-up surfaces greeted the visitor upon entering the high-ceilinged, many-windowed Toronto studio of Tony Scherman. Some were hung: the enlarged, close-up portraits of William Tecumseh Sherman (Uncle Billy); Robert E. Lee (General Bob at Cold Harbor); Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln); and Ulyssess S. Grant (Grant at Cold Harbor). Others were propped against walls wherever possible: pictures of anonymous slaves (young, older, male, female); fallen horses; emaciated dogs and a dispirited, pensive-looking eagle. There was also a terrible image of suspended feet, the scumbled, burnt-on encaustic—Scherman’s signature medium given heft in these paintings by cornmeal—emblematic of the rotting, torn flesh of a lynching victim. These are the artist’s new Civil Warpaintings, an ongoing series with twenty works completed to date that he characterizes as “an interrogation, a meditation, a poem.” Scherman explained that the reason he, a Canadian, chose the American Civil War as a subject was because he sees it as a Kantian conflict, the first war fought on moral terms for an unconditional moral law, a categorical imperative. It was an ethical war and a necessary war, premised on the belief that slavery was a non-negotiable evil. (Vietnam and Iraq, for instance, were/are not necessary wars.) He is well aware that the Civil War was also fought for other, more pragmatic reasons, including the political and economical necessity of maintaining the Union but slavery as a categorical imperative was the defining cause, the one that made it holy. 

As the result of a trip to the South a few years ago, Scherman became deeply interested in the moral paradox that the Civil War exemplifies, from the Southern institutionalization of slavery to the flagrant and subtle racism that existed in the abolitionist North and still exists today throughout the country. He has been painting his way through his own layers of preconceptions but the more he thinks his project through, the less he knows. All his ideas about the Civil War are constructs and all constructs are contingent, based on a mythos that is ultimately not true. Nonetheless, Scherman attempted his own deconstruction of events, his historicizing (and gorgeous) formal style matched to his historic, historicized subject. Self-conscious but not ironic, the Civil War could not be satirized, unlike the Napoleonic wars which the artist had also investigated. Scherman and his paintings acknowledge the slippage between past and present, reality and the illusionary. 

Formally, his paintings refer to the history of art and are indebted to the traditions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to film, as evidenced, for instance, by the tight head shots he often uses, a cinematic device that compresses the pictorial space, eliminates perspective and collapses figure into ground, stressing the surface. “I like to strip away the context and see what I’m left with. I want to see what would be the most reductive statement I can come up with and still be looking at a picture.” He is not interested in creating a conscious dichotomy between form and content. It is not a strategy to oppose his opulent, deftly applied strokes, feverish highlights and rich, baroque chiaroscuro to the starkness of the reality represented, a reality both obscured and conveyed by the romantically textured beauty—incidental, he declares—of his surfaces which can also be read as ravaged, vulnerable, humiliated flesh. 

Scherman’s generals and president look out at the viewer but their faces are hard to read. They gaze at us, but their expressions are elusive, wary, interrupted and camouflaged by arbitrary marks, their mouths sometimes concealed, stopped up by a flurry of strokings. In the case of Sherman, seen in profile, his cold blue eyes avoid us altogether. There is a circularity to the gaze of most of the artist’s subjects. They look out at and beyond the viewer but also retreat into themselves, a round that points to their existence as historical document, invention, meta-invention and material object. Scherman designates these as his objective portraits. 

Other portrayals include an impressionistically painted little girl in a yellow dress; 

her blurred, indistinct face speaks for itself as she hovers between coming into being and disappearing. There is a fierce Rottweiler and a starving, predatory mongrel that refers to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison, overlaid with memories of the dogs that terrorized those incarcerated in Nazi death camps. There are several “eroticized” pictures of black women that he titled The Dreams of Robert E. Lee, as well as a blunted, savage visage that resembles an ape of the same title. These he designates as his subjective paintings.

Scherman said, pointing to a canvas of a strangely powerful young woman, Simone as Slave: “I did this portrait based on a girl that works in my video store. I was looking for a model for a female slave. She was completely modern, high-spirited and laughed a lot. She agreed to pose for me (she came with a chaperon) but then, as a model, she became someone else, the contemporary girl dropped away. But perhaps she just became herself, an embodiment of her race, weighted down by a tragic, haunted, entangled history. I found the transformation astonishing.” 

It is apparent that Scherman has an impulse to destabilize precedents, to seek trans-formations and to view ideologies with skepticism, to be conceptually vigilant. It is also evident that his point of view is compassionate and, perhaps most significantly, that he makes memorable paintings.

Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes regularly for Art in America and is a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.