The rising tide of visual essayist Michael Knowlton

Blackwater Babylon exhibition book / Intro essay
CSUF Grand Central Art Center / Grand Central Press

By Nathan Spoor

" A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story, you feel uplifted or if you feel some small bit of rectitude from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."
- Tim O'Brien

" I believe in compulsory cannibalism. If people were forced to eat what they killed there would be no more war."
- Abbie Hoffman

It is a time where current artistic trends would have one believing that the post-nuclear world is in a state of pluralist fluff worship. It is also a day and age where consumerist propaganda is the mass drug of choice, leaving entire demographics of the Americas in a vacant wake of better cleansers and the inevitable boredom of political white-washings. But it is also the moment when a critical eye, a tried and true heart and an expressive hand can capture a moment in as trusting a hold as any vexed tongue. Political realist and satirist Michael Knowlton captures the essence of this contemporary landscape.

In 1965 ,the budding sociopolitical visual spokesman, was fifteen years old. His father, then a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, was called upon to travel to the yet-unknown staging grounds of the conflict in Vietnam. His experience in country provoked a profound change in his outlook which provoked many family dinner discussions. At this point, the conflict had still to escalate fully, catching the media and culture's eye. But when it did, it would leave a lasting impression upon the then college-bound Michael, whose mother took to the streets to protest the war.

As the artist Jack Levine did before him, Knowlton employs ample dosages of political and social satire to plant the seeds of doubt in his audience. Whereas Levine's expressive lampoons deliver their commentary through exaggeration, Knowlton relies principally on observations made through the eyes of an unflinching documentarian. His is a life of savage returns, a further commentary on the effect of excess on a land of long-standing tradition.

One work that exemplifies the artist's appetite for portraying the underbelly of political drama is the epic work "Vegas Holiday" (oil on linen, 57 x 76 inches). In this moment of debauchery, the viewer is treated to a peek into a lost weekend of a mercenary and his associates. Knowlton was inspired for this work, the first in the Blackwater Babylon series, by first-hand reports from Iraq by Sean Penn as printed in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The articles were very powerful," Knowlton says. "Sean Penn visited Iraq before the United States began the occupation, and talked to the people there. One of the most prominent things that he noticed was the amount of private security thugs in the area. They weren't Army or military at all. They were corporate thugs, and without any law in the land, these guys were just going around harrassing people for their papers and bullying people around." Situated throughout the painting are the mercenaries and their counterparts, the corporate tycoons as well their female companions in states of opulent abandon. of eager and lusty assistance in their state of opulent abandon. In the face of global affliction, this image submits to us a new landscape of corporate cultural decay.

This paintings' mercenary aspect, which is a loving homage to the work of Leon Golub, provides the viewer a visit to the land of Babylon through the theater of its narrative. As Golub rendered his famously stark paintings of mercenary activity, Knowlton deftly creates his own means of reporting aggressive and violent oppression. "Rather than show bodies everywhere, like Goya, I wanted to portray moments of daily life in war, showing the small events hat happen between the headlines. The message could be related without over-sensationalizing, " he states. "I painted these works in order to have a vote. I just wanted to have a voice somehow."

These works by Michael Knowlton exemplify one individual's quest to come to terms with public life in contemporary society. There is an inherent, if not globally and morally relevant need for art of this nature. In this age of artistic pluralism and political carnage, art strives to find truth. There must be paintings about the dance as well as the terrors of war. There must be someone defending morality in the name of the oppressed and the unheard.