Vertigo and destruction
Comic books and monster movies have claimed a disproportionately large chunk of H.C. Westermann’s imagination. That much is apparent to anyone who’s viewed the printmaker’s exhibit at the University of Virginia Museum of Art. “Green Planet,” with its explosion of color and enough cartoonishly oafish monsters for 10 B-movies, is a fairly representative example. The bottom half of the print packs a jumbled mass of birdmen with claws, dinosaurs, and tripod space stations. Over the surface of the planet, what appears to be a low flying meteorite turns out to be some sort of space capsule.
Not every print comes monster-fied, but Westermann always seems to find an excuse to include a fantastic cityscape, where all the boldly outlined buildings bend and sway in graduated unison, like hairs on a chilly forearm. It’s the imagery of the future as imagined at midcentury, and Westermann uses this imagery to explore a pair of disturbing interconnected themes. He has a definite thing for colossal spectacle and large-scale disaster, which he tends to place front and center. This usually takes the form of some airborne object over his city engaged in one of three actions: 1. flying recklessly 2. falling or 3. exploding in blossoms of flame. This particular airborne obsession lends these images of imminent or apparent destruction a real sense of vertigo.
Westermann is also very aware that we’re gawking. Look carefully through each of his prints, and you’ll find that for every hurtling, spiraling, out-of-control object over his city, there’s a tiny silhouette of an anonymous observer— the most basic outline of someone completely separate from the action, but who appears to be starring at everything wild and terrible in Westermann’s skies.
This peculiarity can be particularly unsettling in prints like “Mad Woman,” which depicts a naked and upended woman falling through the cityscape and, it’s probably safe to assume, about to meet the sidewalk. The woman has a terrible expression on her face, and in the way Westermann has portrayed her, she looks particularly exposed and vulnerable. Obviously she is about to die, and just as you’re standing and watching, so is your double— an outline of a person stands at the window behind the woman, watching her fall. These small details tend to implicate viewers in a small way, making the prints much harder to dismiss as just comic book stuff.
The exhibit includes prints, preliminary sketches, and wood blocks used for making the prints.
“See America First, The Complete Graphic Works of H. C. Westermann” runs through the end of March at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 942-3592. Dean Dass gives a gallery talk on Sunday, March 3 at 2pm.