To celebrate the upcoming publication of their fine letterpress edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Arion Press has placed the themes of this richly imaginative, provocative, and essential text in the hands of five Bay Area artists: Taraneh Hemami, Oliver Hawk Holden, Kevin Keaney, Josué Rojas, and Cate White. Their responses form the exhibition SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 x 5, which will be on show in the Arion Press Gallery in San Francisco from April 15 to July 15, 2023. Also displayed are sketches and ephemera from Arion’s King artist-in-residence Vincent Valdez, who is creating the artwork for their edition of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Upon entering the gallery, we are confronted by Taraneh Hemami’s Blood Curtain. Curtains hide, but they also revel. Three layers of flame-colored crystal beads descend from the ceiling, dappling the space with jittering splashes of red. The epic drama of the work stirs conflicting emotions. It is grand and poignant. We are drawn towards its glory. But then we recall its title, Vonnegut’s experience as a POW during the Allied firebombing of Dresden, and the symbolism of those shimmering strands – flames filling the sky, blood spilled, death, and destruction. 

These competing sensations capture the paradox of war. As often as the horrors of war are made manifest, such violence is positioned as valiant in some political speeches, books, films, music, and even art. The self-modeled narrator of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five promises the wife of his war buddy that he will call his book “The Children’s Crusade” so that it could never be misperceived as heroic. Hemami’s second installation “Bullet Points (Children’s Crusade)” covers the gallery’s rear window with red dots representing incidents of shootings in U.S. schools. Sunlight projects these cold hard facts into the room, emeshing and implicating the audience in their impact.

Josué Rojas has created an installation that also uses Vonnegut’s theme of the Children's Crusade as a creative springboard. “La Cruzada de los Nenes” sets a collection of image-charged paintings within a mural painted on the gallery’s brick wall, accompanied by a one-of-a-kind accordion book. Rojas will also produce, in collaboration with writer Russell Morse, a commemorative broadside in the style of political satirist and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. It is worth noting that, in the original Children’s Crusade of 1212, youth were sold into slavery on the pretext of “peacefully” converting Muslims to Christianity. 

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A large-scale painting by Cate White depicts a stage upon which the novel’s apocryphal story of history’s first “dirty photograph” comes to life. Vonnegut has the soldier who purchased the photo explain that the man who sold it to him argued: “the picture was fine art, and that his intention was to make Greek mythology come alive.  He said the columns and the potted palm proved that.” When asked which, the soldier makes oblique reference to Zeus’ many abuses of power to commit sexual violence: “there were thousands of myths like that, with the woman a mortal and the pony a god.”

White renders the pony in the style of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental 1937 painting depicting the bombing of a small town in Northern Spain by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Like Picasso, White uses the black-and-white tones of newsprint to convey immediacy to a scene of otherwise vibrant color. Symbology from the novel is also integrated into this large tableau, which White presents with 13 smaller works. These illustrate not additional scenes from the novel, as well as relics of White’s explorations in developing the larger work. White has created a zine that reproduces pages from her sketch book and provides a fascinating insight into how Vonnegut’s text works its way through the eye of a visual artist.

Oliver Hawk Holden has designed a large-scale bas relief sculpture of a man’s head, into which he has placed a video screen. A looping film of found footage flashes before the audience offering a view into and beyond the mindscape of Billy Pilgrim's fractured and rewoven experiences, memories, and fantasies. War footage and explosions shift to scenes of birth, growth, and decay. And so it goes. The effect brings the viewer eye-to-eye with the arc of human existence on a grandly historic and a profoundly personal scale.

Kevin Keaney’s paintings exhibit the notion that memory is a form of time travel, a collage of recollections. As an artist, Keaney’s odyssey has entailed the wholesale loss of many years of work when the contents of his storage locker was auctioned off without his knowledge. He found out too late that art dealers had “discovered” him at the local flea market and were making thousands of dollars for themselves in gallery sales. This surreal experience was followed by a devastating studio flood, shortly before beginning work on the four works on paper he presents for this exhibition. 

Keaney’s compositions capture the ebb, flow, and debris of living in the layers. Imagery and text from Vonnegut’s novel are interwoven with more personal painterly tracings; both are then partially rubbed out and reassembled. Sketchbooks accompany the framed work and serve to illustrate the artist’s journey from concept to execution.

To bring the creative interplay between literature and art full circle, Arion’s King Artist in Residence Vincent Valez offers a tantalizing sneak peek into his development of 16 lyrical and affecting drawings for Arion’s edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s remarkable to see how each of these artists brings Vonnegut’s seminal text to life for a contemporary audience. They remind us that we are all in a sense unstuck in time, in that the ties that bind and divide us, as well as the conflicts that challenge and define us, can transcend geography and era. It is how we face the world before us (not where and when) that parts the curtain and matters most. —Tamsin Smith

Slaughterhouse 5x5 / Arion Press Gallery / San Francisco / Through July 15, 2023