In 1816, Kentucky-born portrait painter William Edward West created an engraving depicting the battlefield death of British Major General Edward Michael Pakenham at the Battle of New Orleans. At the time, the wounds of the 1815 conflict, the last of the War of 1812, were still fresh, and West did his best to convey the drama. In the background, blue-clad American soldiers fight against invading British redcoats. In the foreground, a British officer holds the dying Pakenham in his arms. General John Lambert, who took over command after Pakenham’s death, is shown burying his face in a white handkerchief as he weeps.
But “Battle of New Orleans and Death of Major General Packenham” (West misspelled the general’s last name) is more bizarre than cinematic. The horses and men are out of scale, and Pakenham’s body is awkwardly positioned within the composition. Among the war dead lies a horse face up, presumably in a state of rigor mortis, but more like a domestic pet in need of a belly rub. Ultimately, the most intriguing thing about the print is the way the artist revised it. Lambert, it seems, was not a fan of being shown in tears, for when West republished the print in 1817, the handkerchief was gone. Instead, the general is shown drawing his index finger towards his foreheadas if announcing a new grain.
This absurd revisionism was on my mind as I wandered through Umar Rashid’s solo exhibition.”Change of the Old Regime 4, 5 and 6” at MoMA PS1 in Queens last month. The Los Angeles-based artist has long been concerned with the mythmaking embedded in history painting. Such artists were generally not at the events portrayed in his works; in fact, in some cases they are they weren’t even on the same continent. Making things up was part of the deal. Rashid has taken that idea and run with that.
In drawings and paintings bearing some of the awkward poses and portentous titles of the genre, the artist has traced the fictional battles of real and invented civilizations. At the Hammer Museum’s pandemic-delayed biennial, “Made in LA 2020: A Version,” he created a set of paintings Titled “The Battle for Malibu” it is based on the story of the Spanish missions in California, with a demon that shoots lasers out of its eyes.
The now closed show at MoMA PS1 focused on the “story” of a land known as Novum Eboracum, also known as New York. On a 6-foot-tall canvas from 2022 titled “Tales From Turtle Island #1. The secrets of the Onguiaahra Falls (Niagara) and the first death of Venus, in furs. Gamera be praised,” we see sirens calling as boats full of Dutch and indigenous men prepare to slide over the edge of the falls. Meanwhile, a Neptune-esque god blows a conch while a snake takes on Gamera, a turtle kaiju from the Japanese movie. In another painting, a pair of deities in an antique convertible descend on a scene in which two soldiers, also lovers, are surrounded by enemy troops under a glowing sky.
If an overheated imagination worked for the early engravers, it also works for Rashid.
“Ancien Regime Change 4, 5, and 6” was one of two solo shows running at MoMA PS1 until earlier this month that offered a welcome jolt to the nervous system, not to mention art and design history. “autonomous Driving,” The first major solo exhibition in an American museum by Mexican artist Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, she subverted the machismo of car culture and reinvented 16th-century religious painting in a queer and sensual way.
He used a hinged triptych, a format commonly used in creating Christian altars, to depict the dashboard of a late-model luxury car in acid green hues. Another triptych, a 2019 painting titled “Sappho,” shows two women in flagrante delicto in the backseat of a vehicle exploding with unbridled nature.
One of the highlights of the exhibition was a large-scale hinged canvas that stood on the floor, over 7 feet tall at its highest point, titled “I Hope Your Air Conditioning Is On As You Face The Global Warming (Part I)”, 2017. The painting consists of four panels that were assembled to evoke a BMW i8 and its extravagant swinging doors. Through the windows of this pictorial vehicle, we see idyllic blue skies and delicate flowers, as well as a landscape on fire.
The freedom that a car is supposed to give us is also at the root of our impending destruction.
Other car-themed paintings included a beautiful triptych from 2022 showing a jumble of exhaust pipes, navigation systems, and fragments of landscape rendered in the stark color palette of a highway. But as in other works by Toranzo Jaeger, there is also a playful sensuality. To enter a car is to enter its body; to enter this triptych is to engage with the elegant black vertical void at its center, along with a literal depiction, in one corner, of a threesome engaged in ecstatic sex.
The artist’s focus on transportation extends to the interstellar. Space exploration is often based on the language of colonialism: there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to the “colonization of mars,” For example. And their symbols are often aggressively masculine. (Cue Jeff Bezos on a penis rocket).
Toranzo Jaeger appropriated the spaceship for new purposes: In a 2022 three-dimensional painted work titled “For New Futures, We Need New Beginnings,” she assembles a spaceship with a painted canvas that features a flowering potato plant and patterns that evoke lips – some rendered in embroidery. On one side of her imaginary rocket, two women strike the carefree pose of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1529 canvas, “Venus standing in a landscape.”
The symbols of the past are reused in the present in the service of imagining a fantastic future.
This is a trend that Toranzo Jaeger and Rashid share in their work.
Rashid playfully blends styles from various eras, his canvases drawing inspiration from colonial-era manuscripts, Persian miniatures, Japanese paintings, comics, and wild-style 1980s graffiti. In the final gallery of the show, he drew on the whimsical aesthetic of Afrofuturism. There, a series of capes, the kind Sun Ra might wear in a performance, were displayed on a wall, each evoking the civilizations the artist depicts in his work. Also on display was a sculpture of a Jumbotron that appeared to have crashed into the room from outer space and commanded the viewer to “sink” or “synchronize”.
Rashid’s distorted stories often extend, like Toranzo Jaeger’s, to otherworldly realms.
In an artist conversation Hosted by the Getty Research Institute in 2021, Rashid said: “The biggest tragedy that happened to African Americans was that we were cut off from our culture, cut off from our language, cut off from our religion, cut off from our names. And when you lose your name and you lose your culture, you lose your identity.
“It is a void that cannot be filled,” he added. “The best way I can fill that loss is…to create a parallel universe.”
His universe undoes the erased, but it is not reactionary, nor is it a site of transparent triumph. It is complicated and messy. Everyone, white, black and brown, is involved in power struggles.
The most compelling of these works are those inspired by European equestrian painting. Think Jacques-Louis David’s majestic canvas 1800 of Napoleon galloping through the Alps in a billowing coat worthy of an Oscar red carpet. It is a form that has been retouched before, perhaps most famously by the painter Kehinde Wiley, who has regularly inserted the black figure into these heroic poses.
Rashid borrows from the form and further complicates it, most intriguingly in a pair of larger-than-life canvases that featured at the outset of the MoMA PS1 exhibition. One featured a mounted black female figure in a robe brandishing a machete over two black soldiers engaged in a brutal sword fight. The sky is rendered with messy droplets, and spray-painted backwards across the scene in bright orange is the word “alive.”
It is not clear who is fighting for whom, who has moral authority, who is the hero in this battle, whom history will revere. No matter which way you edit or review it, war is not heroic. It is a company painted, ultimately, in blood.