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Art in America Review: Clinton Fein at Toomey Tourell

By: Peter Selz
December 2007

Article also avialable at Lexis Nexis

Art in America, December 2007
Art in America, December 2007 Cover

Clinton Fein currently exhibits horrifying high-resolution C-prints depicting (through carefully staged reenactments) the torture of prisoners by the American military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. For some time Fein's political images have been immersed in controversy and dissent. A native of South Africa, he left that country, with its harsh climate of censorship during apartheid, for the U.S., hoping to find truly free expression. Becoming aware of deep flaws in the application of the First Amendment of the Constitution, he filed suit against Attorney General Janet Reno in 1997, seeking declarative and injunctive relief from the provisions of the Communications Decency Act. The suit made its way to the Supreme Court, and Fein won the case. He insists on the fundamental right to annoy and created a Web site in pursuit of that end, maintaining that indecency is one of the most effective tools to counter public apathy.

In a 2004 exhibition at Toomey Tourell he exhibited a striking image, Who Would Jesus Torture?, depicting George W. Bush on the Cross, an American flag wrapped around a phallic missile emerging from his loincloth. Derisive images, also digitally manipulated, of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company, as well as of Pfc. Lynndie England, poster girl for the Abu Ghraib outrages, are also included in this picture. The printing company Fein had hired to produce the digital image ultimately refused to release it and threatened to sue the artist for defamation. In the end, Fein managed to come up with an alternate printer willing to produce the image in time for his exhibition.

The recent show, titled "Torture," consisted of staged and manipulated photographic images. Fein felt that the low resolution of the pictures taken by the GIs participating in the Abu Ghraib abuses - the images that later appeared in the press - had the effect of muting and veiling the actual horror of the scenes depicted. Only sharp, high-resolution images, he concluded, could convey the full impact of the humiliating atrocities and show what the corrupt leaders of a supposedly civilized nation routinely endorsed.

Click to Enlarge
Clinton Fein: Number Ten, 2007,
digital C-Print, 60 by 45 inches;
at Toomey Tourell
The Columbian artist Fernando Botero was so deeply shocked by the spectacle of Abu Ghraib that, instead of his ebullient images, he produced a suite of over 100 provocative paintings and drawings [see A.i.A., Jan. '07]. Other artists -- Richard Serra, Gerald Laing, Jenny Holzer and Paul McCarthy among them - have taken the disgrace of Abu Ghraib as subject matter for their art. But it was Fein's notion that a full reenactment of the terrifying poses into which prisoners were forced was in order. After all, the original photographs were themselves staged, intended as trophy images, much like those by-now familiar photographs of lynchings in the American South, images crowded with the smiling faces of all who had come to see. So Fein re-created, for instance, the picture of Pfc. England holding a naked prisoner by a leash while pointing to his genitals. Another re-created photo shows a naked detainee made to masturbate another prisoner. Sadomasochistic sexuality, which is implied in the original snapshots, is stressed in Fein's prints. The artist is well aware of America's fascination with sex and violence, attested to by much of the current fare in movies and TV.

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The hooded prisoner with the electric wires tied to his hands has become the unofficial logo of the present war in Iraq. For the 2004 election, Serra made a poster of this image, and it has also been restaged by Fein. So has the picture of the human pyramid of naked men, an image to which the artist has given the title Rank and Defile (2007). In addition to the photographs that simulated the original snapshots, there were also two entirely fictional C-prints in the show. Crucifiction 1 and 2 (2007), for example, are the artist's imagined views of what it is like to collapse under extreme physical abuse.

Torture of detainees or their rendition to countries with even more abusive torture regimens has become semi-legal under the Bush administration. Fein reminds us, however, that these practices can never be anything less than intolerable. Otherwise, the real war is already lost. -- Peter Selz