Rick Shaefer’s “Refugee Trilogy” is jaw-droppingly awesome. Imagine a triptych of triptychs—eight feet high, forty-five feet long—depicting dozens of people in a violent cataclysm, along with the occasional lion, hippo and crocodile. Refugees are driven—motivated by life-threatening conditions to leave their homes. Refugees are dying, refugees are human. How can you help them? In response to that plea, the exhibition includes short video interviews with Marquette University faculty from several disciplines.
Executed with charcoal on vellum, there is a wealth of representational detail on each panel, yet the overall composition remains spacious and dynamic. The work is in monochrome, yet the shades of gray are so rich that additional colors would only be a distraction. Attention has also been given to the viewers’ height, so figures near the floor appear seen as if from above.
One is immediately moved and impressed, but anyone who follows art history will feel strong déjà vu. Every figure has been copied from old masters, especially Peter Paul Rubens who, according to the artist, “had that angst, that fervor, that pathos.” To assist with identification, the artist has provided a key to his sources. Shaefer does not make faithful copies—which would be impossible, anyway—in the rendering of an oil painting into charcoal. Instead, he makes a collage of charcoal studies. Anatomical structures have often been lost in translation, but the artist realizes a strong sense of volume with careful tones and strong cross-hatching. Original figures may have been rotated or flipped into a mirror image and the new juxtapositions can be somewhat surprising. In one corner of “Water Crossing,” the grieving Virgin from Rubens’ “Entombment” stands next to the outraged Rhea Silvia, who was raped by Mars, the God of War. As suffering women, they make sense in this context, though the arrangement does remind us of the contradictions between the atrocities of empire-building and the pieties of state religion in seventeenth-century Europe.
Shaefer’s copies often share the strength but not the sensuality of the original figures, and the spaces between them often feel confused. He’s more about graphic energy and when not tethered to an old master painting, he’s more like an abstract expressionist. I prefer his rendering of the windswept waves in “Crossing by Water” to any of his figures. Though well done, they still feel like cartoons, like in the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” wherein animated cartoon characters are reborn into a new meta-narrative. It’s as if some disaster—perhaps twentieth-century Modernism?—has forced the figures in post-Renaissance painting to flee their canvases and seek opportunities elsewhere. But the tightly muscled men and sensual women of the Baroque vernacular hardly resemble actual refugees, Syrian or otherwise.
These pieces walk the line between character and caricature, grandeur and grandiosity. With their apparent sincerity, they contribute to a discussion of immigration and asylum. But if figurative art is a cause worth advancing, this collage of copies doesn’t take it very far. Facing backward rather than ahead, it would suggest that contemporary art cannot use its own voice to address the fundamental issue of human identity. (Chris Miller)
Rick Shaefer’s “The Refugee Trilogy” shows through January 14 at the Haggerty Museum of Art, 1234 West Tory Hill Street, Milwaukee.