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Killing With Kindness 

Humanity wins out at Dead Horse's War Games.

"War Games III," by Mary Owens Rosenthal, woodcut - print.
  • "War Games III," by Mary Owens Rosenthal, woodcut print.
The name War Games and Other Entertainments may evoke the images seen on television news, where depictions of world events seem to share the video-game ethos of conquer and destroy. But the title actually refers to the current exhibition at the Dead Horse Gallery in Lakewood. Highlighting the work of printmaker Mary Owen Rosenthal, along with that of three other artists, the show focuses more on themes of humanity than those of war. And if it requires a greater attention span than TV news or video games, it also offers the potential for greater rewards.

Rosenthal is a septuagenarian who graduated from Oberlin College and still resides in the college town. Her three "War Games" prints, from which the show derives its title, showcase her love for literature and history, as well as her sense of humor. The first depicts a man who has lopped off his own head and holds it in one hand, the weapon in the other. The second shows two figures wrestling, one of them attempting to stab the other. The third features a man whacking off feet with an ax, as if chopping wood in a forest. Although the subject matter sounds gruesome, the images are more comical than grotesque, as if they could be part of a storyboard from a Spike and Mike animation festival. The weapons and stabbing seem more like spoofs on Freudian anxieties than serious wartime commentary. In this way, there's a palpable sense of mirth amid the madness.

Rosenthal's other featured prints veer away from violence and toward a playfully feminist slant. Her "Who's Bad?" series features images of "badass" women, from Helen of Troy to Josephine Baker, rendered in a stark black-and-white style that captures the energy of the German Expressionists. Each is portrayed in an individual print, with a corresponding quote penciled below. The collection is coupled with the "How Mad?" series, which includes images of more . . . eccentric females, including Joan of Arc and Lady Macbeth. The final print, titled "Who Now?", consists of an image of a cow. In an ironic contemporary twist, Rosenthal relates the delirium surrounding the featured women to that of mad-cow disease. Together, the two series create a unique, illustrated anthology of female history, with an absurdist slant.

Where Rosenthal's exploration of humanity is confined to historical subjects, works by the other artists reflect an interest in humanity rooted in the everyday. This is particularly evident in the photographs by Cleveland artist Tony Serna, who portrays "urban nomads" -- his broad term for people who live in poverty or otherwise struggle with the economy, all of them Clevelanders. He renders his subjects via the simplest form of photography, the pinhole camera, and his crude technology mirrors the often crude circumstances of his subjects. Posing for such an image requires the figure to remain still for several seconds, which many of his subjects were unable to do. Their restlessness lends a surreal quality, each movement registering in the final image as a wavy, translucent blur. The result is a sense of monumentality; viewing the works is like peering into a crystal ball, waiting for the cloudy apparition to crystallize.

Washington, D.C. painter Donna Coleman is both enchanted with and exasperated by human relationships -- especially issues of sexism and racism. In her painting "Birth of Venus," Coleman narrates a throng of interactions: In the foreground, a sandy beach is filled with visitors of mixed races; among them are a mother slathering sunscreen on her children, a shy couple chatting while digging their toes in the ground, and kids taking turns burying one another in the sand. Meanwhile, a buxom black Venus with electric red hair, inspired by Botticelli's pale image of the same figure, sails in on the crest of a lavender wave, completely unnoticed by the beachgoers. Though the implications of Venus's skin color seem unclear, the fact that no one pays her any mind suggests a sense of beauty among their own harmonious interactions.

Max Holmes, a self-taught Pennsylvania artist, creates rich surfaces using pens dipped in acrylic and applied to wood. His works explore the instincts and behavior of human beings and animals. "Dilemma" shows three men in suits, seated and looking perplexed. The figures surround a red tabletop with two black circles on its surface. A fourth man faces the others with a grasshopper in his open hand, resting on the tabletop. According to Holmes, this man represents the conscience of the leaders, which has been forgotten in the face of their dilemma; the grasshopper symbolizes the decision they must make. In a letter to the gallery, Holmes relates that he created "Dilemma" in response to the war in Iraq; the formally dressed men probably represent President Bush and his advisors. Holmes often paints his subjects from photographs, a technique that here yields figures that appear to have been ripped from the pages of Time magazine. Their familiarity lends an unoriginal feel that renders "Dilemma" ultimately disappointing.

From history to politics to a day at the beach, the works in War Games encourage the viewer to reflect on the interconnectedness of individuals and their daily interactions. The Dead Horse originally intended to exhibit only Rosenthal's prints, but, as plans loomed to downsize operations and exhibition space in March, the gallery recognized the necessity of finding wall space for Serna, Coleman, and Holmes. The themes explored by all four are sufficiently related that they create a rich cross section of scenarios and personalities. It's well worth the trip.

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