In the strongest show we’ve seen this spring, local sculptor John Donovan gets his war on with This Ridiculous Fight — a deft, deliberate send-up of American saber-rattling culture that finds the artist at the height of his powers. Fight includes drawings alongside figures based on pre-Columbian and Chinese Han Dynasty-era ceramic sculptures, allowing Donovan to demonstrate his mastery of early ceramic techniques. From the glazed surfaces of his figures to the obsessive lines of his drawings, the work in the show is formally exquisite.
But Donovan’s warrior figures and their interchangeable armaments come complete with bunny-head-helmets and tunics emblazoned with Hello Kitty — and while they’re scrumptiously cute in and of themselves, they also pull gaming culture, G.I. Joe dolls and childhood war games into America’s history of empire and violence. While the show speaks volumes about the craft/art history of ceramic materials, it’s the artist’s understanding of cultural history, political history and the psychology of violence that makes this more than just another art show about art.
Donovan’s figures don’t translate such a broad, deep message when included in a group exhibit, but seeing a whole gallery full of the stuff is like bearing witness to centuries of aggression. The show reminds us of the William S. Burroughs quote, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”