Isn't it time we started talking seriously (or at least, differently) about Niagara?
Don't get us wrong if that opening question took you by surprise. We've never taken this Detroit artist for granted or been dismissive of her talent. If we have one belated regret, it's simply that much of what we've hitherto written in the past about her seems annoyingly static. The resume and curriculum vitae both come out of the files (as they will again shortly, of course) and no matter what words are chosen for a new article ... well, they frequently leave us with the regretful notion that we've merely composed another arrangement based on melodies already played and already heard.
The abridged version of that resume: A key figure in Detroit's music/art scene as early as 1974 when Destroy All Monsters helped to crystallize/amplify a burgeoning punk sound from the industrial Midwest... The almost simultaneous discovery that the lady possessed a flair for painting and an insightful appreciation for motifs drawn from pop culture and film noir ... CPop, a Detroit gallery eager to showcase local art with an "edge" to it, has its first Niagara exhibit in 1996 ... A later project entitled The Opium Series revealed a richer and more eclectic sensibility ... more exhibits ... books ... and yes, these and other matters are addressed in detail on more than one website or link. Allow us to summarize it all succinctly: Niagara has always lived up to her name as a force of nature – and to claim this remarkably talented woman as one of ours is a source of pride.
Now let's return to the present day and to the welcome news that War Paint, Niagara's first Detroit solo exhibit in eight years, will take place at RE:View Contemporary Gallery on July 14. Incidentally, that happens to be Bastille Day in France – a national holiday that commemorates liberty, freedom, equality and the occasional need to tear down some obstructing real estate here and there in order to turn lofty words into reality. Very nice timing, in our opinion.
And here is where we start to talk seriously about Niagara.
The Detroit artist has taken "war and the pity of war" as her subject matter. War Paint, in fact, tackles in a most original way a frequently overlooked but undeniable fact about armed conflict – chiefly, that women are (and always have been) pivotal players on the field of Mars. Indeed, any scholar can find examples from history and legend to back the argument that the "weaker" sex hasn't always eschewed the dangers of war or backed away from the threat of an enemy. Judith bested Holofernes with nothing save her charm and copious amounts of wine; Joan of Arc at Orleans; the Russian Night Witches who flew against the Luftwaffe. Modern warfare today (especially in parts of the Third World and the Middle East) sees women playing a more decisive role. At this very moment, in fact, there is a strong and vocal contingent within our own military that wishes to see women take a more active (or more recognized) role in combat.
This, we hasten to add, is not a novelty exhibit or an artist whimsically embracing a different theme to assay something new. In the course of writing this article, we learned an interesting fact about Niagara – she's an enthusiast for military history and intrigued by the dark and charismatic attractions of war.
"Winston Churchill was my gateway to World War II," Niagara said to us recently. "I read books about him, books written by him, fell in love with him, and did a portrait of him that will be included in my show. This interest then led to an obsession with General George Patton – who had it all! Both men were well-educated in history, true geniuses, and both were witty and funny. I thought of how Americans worked together then, for a common cause, and how divided we are now. It's harking back to that time, of course, but it's also about eternally fighting for rights and freedoms. Our soldiers are willing to die fighting for us and to safeguard our rights. That alone encouraged me to read all that I could find about this particular subject. Patton once said that, compared to war, 'All other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.' That was a revelation to me. The rhetoric and phrases of war are intense and the American soldier has always been a riotously perceptive individual. This whole subject, in fact, is an aphorist's dream."
And as Rick Manore (one of the former directors of CPop Gallery) describes it, this academic interest has inspired a singular and unique series of paintings.
"I think War Paint is Niagara's most mature and meaningful project to date. My theory is that after so many years of articulating feminine power through noir-ish figures and subjects, the idea of depicting similar women in the 'morally acceptable' theater of war is an intentionally ironic, yet profound, statement regarding a woman's continual fight for equality within the male hierarchy of power and also on the relativity of violence itself."
Echoing that same view is Simone DeSousa, the owner of RE:View Contemporary.
"Of course this is an extremely relevant theme of our times, where conflicts are popping up in several parts of the world. I believe Niagara's work is responding to that. Whereas before she depicted strong beautiful feminine women who refused to be classified as the 'weak' gender, now she connects to the idea of war situations where groups are rising against established oppressing forces. It is again about defying the perceived norm, and to give way to revealing, at times through humor, the real strength of the characters involved in such situations. For the creation of this new body of work, her aesthetic references go back mostly to World War II. To recreate the 'classic' war look, Niagara delved into every detail of World War II symbols, uniforms and read 21 books related to the events and people of that time. This brings another layer of interest to the work, where all the historic nuances await to be discovered as the viewer experiences each piece."
We hope to see you all on this field of honor. | RDW
Niagara: War Paint • 7/14-8/4; Thursday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. • Re:View Contemporary Gallery • 444 W. Willis St., Detroit • 313.833.9000 • reviewcontemporary.com