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

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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