A few days after Saddam Hussein was hanged, he became the subject of an art exhibit. And who does Hussein share the canvas with? None other than Donald Rumsfeld. Back when Rumsfeld was Special Envoy to the Middle East under the Regan Administration, he and Hussein met to discuss the Iran-Iraq War. Oh yeah, and oil (see sections 18-19 on pages 15-17 of this then-confidential report). Two years ago, Jonathan Podwil began a series of paintings based on this historic encounter. Now on exhibit at Greenwich Village’s Plane Space till February 4, Meeting 1983 becomes even more significant than when the artist began his work.
Interestingly enough, the two controversial political figures that inspired this series are barely visible in the paintings. The amorphous forms of the Butcher of Baghdad and the man accused of sanctioning torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison are enveloped by a big, homey couch. Of course, the leaders were on friendlier terms then: "In his 90-minute meeting with Rumsfeld, Saddam Hussein showed obvious pleasure with ... Rumsfeld's visit" (page 2). Now, the distance between the figures in the paintings seems more indicative than the fact they sat on the same couch. This is most evident in Podwil’s diptych and triptych that place Hussein and Rumsfeld on completely separate canvases.
From a single frame of video footage of the meeting, Podwil has painted canvases and linens whose varying width and length convey as much as the vantage points. Some paintings show just the dictator. Others use over-the-shoulder technique, suggesting reactions to dialogue. The dark, muted colors indicate the tone of the meeting.
Meeting 1983 is Podwil’s second solo exhibit at the gallery. His other paintings have also been of a political nature, including the Kennedy assassination and Rommel’s funeral. The Brooklyn artist also makes short films and animations.
Hussein himself collected art. Six fantasy pieces were found in his Baghdad homes during U.S. raids. Two of these paintings were by Rowena Morrill, who hails from upstate New York; one of these was designed for the cover of an 80s pulp novel. "And if this is the authentic taste of Saddam, it is that of a man who seems on this evidence to have lived according to aestheticised, eroticised violence for which no one has yet come up with a better word than 'fascism,'" said Jonathan Jones. We doubt Podwil’s paintings would’ve made it into Hussein’s collection.