Words by Heike Dempster
“In the Valle de los Caidos,” is the new exhibition showing at Primary Projects. Once again Chris Oh, Typoe and Books have proven that they cannot be placed in any box, as they invited Arizona based conceptual artist and professor Lawrence Gipe to show his exploration of fascism via the Santa Cruz de la Valle de los Caidos cathedral.
“My work is inspired by the visual culture that gets stimulated by fascism and totalitarian governments and propaganda” explains Lawrence Gipe, adding that “The last 20 years of my work has always dealt with propaganda in some way; Stalinist, German, Italian, Chilean, Chinese, North Korean… it’s endless. I just chose this one monument in Spain because of things I have been seeing in the news recently about it so I find it kind of interesting.”
Lawrence Gipe, born in Baltimore in 1962, has had 45 solo exhibitions from New York to Los Angeles and Düsseldorf to Munich and his work is part of permanent collections such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Yale University Library and the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach. Gipe thought about “In the Valle de los Caidos,” for 3 years but no gallery was interested and he could not find anyone who would take a chance on the delicate, overt political and religious imagery until he met the owners of Primary Projects, which was a perfect match according to Gipe. “I think this is the right place for it at the right time and I am happy to be here.”
“In the Valle de los Caidos” addresses the fascist-era iconography and structures of the Santa Cruz de la Valle de los Caidos cathedral, a gigantic Roman Catholic basilica built over 18 years by Generalissimo Francisco Franco as a tomb for himself, using slave labor after the Spanish Civil War. Franco was interred under the altar upon his death in 1975 in his “monument of atonement and reconciliation,” says Gipe. The mountain that surrounds the basilica is crowned with a 500 foot high cross, the world’s largest stone cross. At one point, the face of Mary was removed and encaged with a scaffold which is one of Gipe‘s most powerful subjects.
The work of Lawrence Gipe is loaded with history, political connotations and commentary on propaganda and totalitarian governments. His work causes controversy, debate and cannot easily be brushed aside as the kind of art that simply looks beautiful on the walls. No doubt his work is incredibly detailed, crafted to perfection and his skills are displayed impressively but Gipe’s art goes beyond the initial aesthetics.
The epically-scaled mixed media paintings on raw canvas, a video installation, and numerous small works in the exhibition have to be viewed from all angles. Literally, because of many details but also conceptually as the work should be analyzed and understood with caution as Gipe’s intentions are not to offend or be sacrilegious but rather to address relevant and dangerous mind sets and political situations. Gipe used archival photos and films as well as a Franco-era spy thriller that used the church grounds as a set as the basis for the work in “In the Valle de los Caidos.”
“Spain did not handle their fascist moment very elegantly,” Gipe says with a smirk. “There is a way to make it more definite. You cannot go and visit Hitler’s or Mussolini’s bones. It has become a monument to his (Franco) legacy. The left wing has tried to blow the whole thing up twice. The right wing goes and protests in front of it all the time to the point where the left wing government closed the monument in 07.” He continues to explain, “The scaffolding you see is not an imagination, this is what it really looked like for two years. They cited structural problems in 2009 which was probably true but the Catholic Church went wild and said the communists were trying to destroy Catholicism. Right now it is a highly controversial place. In a way it is about an aesthetic from 1940 left over from World War II but it is still a place that is very much in the news for Spain.”
Lawrence Gipe’s impressive work shown in “In the Valle de los Caidos,” is a commentary on current affairs and the dangers of propaganda, whether religious or political, and fascism. Despite the heavy subject matter, strong imagery and religious connotations the work in the exhibit has a certain quietness and an almost serene quality.
The canvas pieces are especially powerful as the large scale of the work brings across the vastness of the cathedral, the monumental basilica and enormous cross. Surrounded by the paintings the audience can envision being in front of and inside of the cathedral. The scale of the work also coincides with the scale of the significance of Franco and the cathedral and its personification of fascism in Spain.