Tragic Beauty

Journey: Dan Eldon’s Images of War and Peace at the UCSB University Art Museum

Shows through May 14.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

Two robed, engraved hands form a shadow puppet dove, its wings the base for a book. On the recto, Daniel is in the lion’s den. On the verso are three textual passages, the first expunged with black marker, another added in pencil. Hovering above, haloed by gold paint incised with ball-point and adorned with snakeskin, is a photograph of the artist, a goat’s skull in each hand, posing before the jumbled jars, images, and objects of an alchemist’s shop. To the left are two primitive tarot cards, a skull with crossed bones, and a scorpion, with captions in Spanish. All of this is superimposed upon a map of Africa.

This is but a summary and speculative description of one of the simplest images in the exhibition Journey: Dan Eldon’s Images of War and Peace currently on display at the UCSB University Art Museum. The image at first seems to present the view of the artist I most expected: Saint Dan, missionary and martyr. The exhibition, after all, features the work of a photojournalist who was stoned to death at 22 by Somalis, the very people whose plight Eldon had sought to document and expose. The title of the exhibition, too, led me to expect something political. Refreshingly, the works themselves transcend politics.

There are images of war. The back wall features the photographs that you would expect from a talented photojournalist working in Somalia during the early 1990s: American marines interacting with civilians and hauntingly gorgeous portraits of starving children. Yet this is only the background for this show. The center of the exhibition is ringed by Eldon’s 17 journals, each filled with his collages, all opened for display in glass cases like glorious, intimate relics. The largest visual punch comes from about two dozen poster-sized reproductions of pages from these books. The pages, originally on 8 × 10 sheets of paper, do not suffer from enlargement. On the contrary, each one holds so much visual interest that, taken all together, they are something of a barrage.

War, its causes, and its ravages are visible in these pages too. What humanizes all of this is the fact that there aren’t actually any images of peace. There are images of obsession, humanitarianism, play, horniness, ADD, fantasy, experimentation, wit, irony, adolescence, aliveness, and fun. Maybe some of these things are related to peace or even create the conditions for it. But there are no pat answers. Rather, one comes away from this exhibit recognizing what it must have been like for this young man to have so fallen in love with a people that he wanted to respond to their suffering. I left with the feeling one has after an exquisite movie or a funeral: aware enough to feel slightly detached, and yet with everything brighter, and brought into clearer relief.

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