Horror of War in Sharp Relief

Michael Glover, The Independent, 9 November 2005

When you try to bring to mind the most memorable renderings of the horrors of war – think of the paintings of Francisco Goya or Otto Dix, for example – two elements seem to be held on some kind of terrible, nerve-tingling balance: the human and the non-human. There is the corpse, and then there is the blasted landscape – which may be a messy combination of the built and the natural – in which the person perished. The two belong together. They make sense of each other. They exist in an endless, horror-struck embrace.

Gerry Judah’s subject matter is war and its terrible aftermath, too, but the art works in this show do away with the human element altogether. They merely show us the devastation. Judah has made a series of wall-mounted constructions, 13 in all, from foam-board and acrylic gesso on canvas. These are landscapes – even landscape paintings, if you like, except that they really exist in some hybrid worlds between paintings, sculpture and architectural modelling.

All 13 of these pieces are miniaturised renderings of human settlements of one kind or another that have been pulverised by war. Each one is built up and out from the surface – we stare, fascinated, at buildings, that are falling in on themselves like packs of cards. There are collapsed walls, ruined sheds, stairways going nowhere, flung oil drums, corrugated-iron doors, or lengths of electricity cables, stretched and twisted like barbed wire, or some martyr’s crown of thorns, and rendered wholly useless.

We stare at all this, examining each painful detail bit by bit, we seem to be looking directly, almost vertiginously, down from above, from the viewpoint of some idling bird perhaps. Or, more soberingly, from the viewpoint of that pilot who dropped the bomb that did the damage, and then passed calmly on. And this act of looking seems to make us complicit with the act itself, and with the action of the brutish pulveriser.

The details themselves are very small, if not tiny, and that disturbs us, too, because we are so accustomed to the idea that a miniaturised thing – whether it be a model car, a china ornament or doll’s house furniture – must almost inevitably charm us. In fact, these constructions, in their scale and their fussiness, might well have been executed by a child, had their subject matter not been quite so baleful and unsavoury.

Each “Frontier” shows us a slightly different devastated human settlement. Consequently, the rhythms of each one is slightly different. In one, the settlement makes a quick, broken, sweeping curve. The rest of the surface area is the unnerving silence of the white space of a rather rubbly or pockmarked texture. In another, apartment blocks, as they fall, seem to shunt into each other like derailed trains.

There is no colour in any of this. The patina of each one is identical to all the others. Each surface is a dusty off-white. It is an almost puzzlingly unnatural colour, this ghostly absence of colour. So much devastation, and yet not a trace of colour. Not the least taint of blood. The settlements themselves feel marooned and abandoned amid so much whiteness.

And all of these works – each one a kind of obsessive variant of the next, like some terrible facial tic of which one cannot possibly hope to rid oneself – hang above a somewhat stained concrete floor, glared at by suspended lights, set against bare, breezeblock walls. The building itself feels very still. The only sound is a faint drip-dripping of water from somewhere, it could be near, it could be far. And even that seems vaguely ominous, heavy with more meaning than it probably deserves.