Jeff Aeling

Many artists who, like Jeff Aeling, have grown up under fears of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, have responded by creating realistic - or surrealistic - artworks that accommodate, even if ironically, the future event of cataclysm. Some, such as Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring, have shown humorously mutated planets on which pop culture icons fuse against a post-apocalyptic background. Others, the classically-realistic painters Odd Nerdrum and Bo Bartlett come to mind, have depicted devastated twilight worlds in which bands of devolved hunter-gatherers roam. Such apocalyptic visions seem to have a taken a deep hold of our culture .

The scholar Charles Strozier, who has made a study of American beliefs concerning the world's end and has coined the word "endism" to describe their impact on our mass psychology, says:

Endism in our culture embraces many forms, and partially touches everyone's life in its connection with death. Endism is an attitude as much as a myth, a sense of foreboding as much as a given story, an orientation to ultimate concerns as much as a commitment to a specific end time narrative. Endism describes the future location and deepest yearnings of the self. Endism is process and vision. It cuts against all logic, is usually mystical, and may become magical. Endism stirs hope, which can inspire the dispossessed but can also come to serve as yet another instrument of control for the rich. 1

How Aeling differs from his artistic contemporaries is that he offers not a vision of a charred future (although the work is, to a large extent, visionary) but a portrait of the present time. As its title suggests, Aeling has compiled what he believes will be a useful "guide book" that will help us steer beyond the difficult shoals of the next few years, as the Second Millennium beloved of prophets and doomsayers alike draws to a desultory close. The exhibition is intended both as a depiction of and a salve to contemporary end-time thinking, the same kind of religious-inspired desperation (what the novelist Don DeLillo has termed "millennial hysteria") that lies behind both the conflagration at Waco, Texas, and the subway gassing in Tokyo.

One cannot enter Aeling's passionately installed exhibition without wondering at its intricacy, its miniaturization and its sheer number of works (over a hundred oil paintings are included). To look at the interiors of Aeling's Biedermeier-style museum cases and viewing boxes, one must peer between exquisitely-carved columns, or look through stereopticon eye pieces. Indeed, to fully savor the exhibit's underlying message, one has to first enter into its peculiarly anachronistic spirit, that of a traveling nineteenth- century medicine show or "museum of oddities." (Aeling has stated that he modeled The Layman's Guide after the traveling exhibitions of Theodore Gericault and Frederick Church, whose mural-sized paintings were widely toured in the last century and were perhaps the equivalent of today's Imax Theater.)

Just as in a nineteenth-century arcade, the wandering viewer encounters medieval horrors, scientific curiosities, a Murderer's R o w, and natural wonders of all sorts. Each section follows the artist's purpose, however. As one follows the logic of its six distinct exhibits, one moves from nuclear terror and all of the anxieties that beset the end of the 20th century to a visual resolution based on an appreciation of nature's larger rhythms from the wash of waves to the beat of a spiral galaxy. As Aeling comments, "The show moves in a linear fashion. As long as you continue to follow that line, you eventually find relief. If you stop and turn back, everything you see will refer to the anxieties depicted in the opening section."

The first section contains some of the show's most terrifying and impressive imagery. The Fearful Vortex consists of a model train spiraling down into the depths of a miniature pit or mine shaft whose bottom cannot be seen. Once the train disappears, it returns after a short time out of a tunnel at the top of the scene, only to complete its fearful plummet once more. With its terraced sides, The Vortex recalls popular depictions of the dreaded "Inferno" of Dante Alighieri's epic poem, with its nine concentric circles, each lower and more frightening than the other. But Aeling's work, closely examined, contains a message of rebirth.

Also in Section One, The Bomb and The Deathhouse represent further aspects of our most naked anxieties the room from which no person escapes, the faceless, protoplasmic dread of a nuclear fireball at the moment of detonation. The works elicit fears of government-sponsored terror and extreme and violent loss of individuation. Yet Aeling's Biedermeier display cases distance us and tend to render these horrors as seeming scientific curios from the past as, in a civilized society, they certainly should be.

Continuing the show's didactic format, Section Two, The Compendium of the Mean and Ignorant, is a rogue's gallery of those who have exploited the world's apocalyptic fears to their own advantage. Aeling's net is cast widely: he includes not only Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones, but Arianna Huffington; not just David Koresh and Shoko Asahara, but Kurt Waldheim, as well. The arrangement of these carved wood block portraits in a cross not only draws on religious iconography, but parodies numerological aspects of endist thinking for the pseudo science of numerology dovetails neatly with the professional doomsayer's often compulsive search to provide meaning in tiny, irrelevant details.

Section Three, called The Beauty Pantheon, is a meditation on the value of real over ephemeral beauty. Here, as elsewhere in the show, Aeling inserts imagery of intense personal importance to himself. Set in a model of the ancient Greek Temple of Hera (wife of Zeus), the piece compares portraits of supermodels (Kate Moss and the like), whose charms project the desires of those who view them, to that of the artist's own wife, whose attractions are for the artist, a result of authentic appreciation and proximity.

Section Four also compares a real to an imaginary world. Aeling spent his early teenage years on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, depicted here in a pristine condition, as it must have appeared before the advent of man. Far from a retreat of safety and comfort, however, Aeling discovered that his home was the location of the Pacific Fleet's nuclear weapons stockpile and thus a certain target in case of a nuclear war. Local rumor had it that the very waves might rise up and destroy the island, in the aftershock of the earthquake that was predicted to tumble California into the ocean in the late 1960s. Thus, Sections Three and Four, at the show's center, deliberate on the hazards of accepting without question the fragmented images of a death-obsessed culture on the one hand, the island paradise that turns out to be a place of danger and instability, on the other, an ideal of beauty whose allure cannot extend beyond the magazine page.

Section Five, entitled In the Face of Nature; The Untroubled Hand of God," can be taken as an eloquent, or poetical, summing up of the entire installation from the most nightmarish of end-time visions to images of peace and natural harmony. The series of luminous oil paintings and wood block prints, exhibited in antique-appearing frames, begins with man-made calamities, an abandoned mine excavation in South Africa that swallows the surrounding town, a rocket spiraling out of control, a house smoldering in an atomic test site. Later scenes simply display the violent forces and grandeur at nature's command: a hurricane's storm surge, a tornado destroying a trailer park, a boat foundered by a monstrous wave.

Finally, there is a related pair of placid landscapes that have special meaning for Aeling: a pole haystack in Eastern Europe and the house of the artist's grandfather in northern Iowa, buried in snow.

In describing Section Five, the artist says, "The first part is about the assertion of group identity by erasing an individual's. The second is about asserting identity by controlling or opposing nature. The third is about asserting identity in congress with nature."

In Section Six, exhibited in a separate room, Aeling completes his artistic essay on end-time thinking with a display of meditative paintings that seem to pull back from the anxious doings of mankind into the calm, everlasting cycles of the cosmos. Here are empty, peaceful ocean landscapes and cloud formations, churning waterspouts and vast spiral galaxies, revolving in space. Here the artist has made use of many separate lacquered layers of pigment, vividly brushed onto the ground, to recreate impressions of place and nature left on his memory from forays or visits in the past.

The "vortex" that was presented at the start of the exhibition as a circling nexus of horror, now returns as the engine of immense and dark, but not necessarily malicious forces. "Let us not deny it up and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities , "2 Aeling reminds us, using a text from the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thus, finally, The Layman's Guide presents us with a different kind of "end," a foreseeable, yet faceable one very different from the ideas of human extinction and nuclear Armageddon presented at the exhibit's start. Different, too, from those of the "mystics, artists, and psychotics,"3 whose task it was, in the past, to imagine our collective endings. Aeling's is a saner voice, and one that we might profitably heed as we go about our business in the last days of the millennial era.

Peter von Ziegesar
July 1996
New York, NY


1 Strozier, Charles B. Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 250.

2 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, from The Conduct of Life, quoted in the exhibition's accompanying text.

3 Strozier. From the author's unpublished introduction to a forthcoming book, "The Year 2,000: Essays on the End, edited by Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn" (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Special thanks to:

Tal Wilson
Carl Kurtz
Larry Buechel
Devon Himes
Rossana Jeran
Justin Bell
Russell Ferguson
Charles Strozier
Bryan Dilks
Mark Aeling
Phil Geller
and especially
Margaret Silva and Sean Kelley.
For Anne Lamoy and Mark Scott



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