Calling himself a “truth fighter”, John Douglas’ mature work addressed his passionate social conscience through film and photography.
The lifelong committed artist is in “John Douglas: A Life Well Lived”, a retrospective, sponsored by the Northern New England Museum of Contemporary Art and curated by its director Mark Waskow.
This is the museum’s first public exhibition and covers many different aspects of Douglas’ work, from early photographs of Chicago protests in the late 1960s to bucolic images of Lake Champlain in 2019. Douglas lived a full life engaged which lasted 84 years from 1938 until 2022 and observed and chronicled this period in a unique way.
As a founding member of the collective film production organization “Newsreel”, Douglas focused on the political issues surrounding the Vietnam War. The large still, “Chicago Demonstration,” from his film “Summer of ’68” is an iconic photograph that captures the naive innocence of the protesters, their hands raised forming symbols of peace, courage, and conviction. It is a reminder of a pivotal time in our history, when young people truly believed change was possible and stood firm in their belief in the unjust war in Vietnam. As the child of a military government family, Douglas fearlessly chose the position of counter-narrative to point out the duplicity of his own government.
Douglas was a pioneer in computer generated imagery (CGI) and animation. Most of the images shown are digital still images taken from the animations. The series, “The Whitehouse”, features skeletons posed in recognizable domestic settings going about their ordinary lives, conversing, dancing, chatting at a table, ignoring the rising waters, until there is no more. no other recourse than to climb on the roof to hail a passing helicopter. The absurdity of so many of our thoughtless human actions is on full display with a sense of the sinister ever present.
The “Autowarming” series again features footage taken from animations created by Douglas. “Rivermouth” is a computer generated dark print on a textured wood substrate that makes it look like a painting. Oil rigs and windmills float in a Turneresque seascape against a purple sunset. In “Autowarming #1”, a graveyard of rows of parked cars are submerged almost to their windows in a sea of water that again has oil rigs resting against a distant cityscape. In tones of red-orange and black, with a brilliant setting sun, the image is startlingly intense and impossible not to see as a dystopian vision of a possible future if humanity continues to ignore the signs of global warming.
There are digital drone photographs of a small island, “Ohihozo in Pe-ton-bowk” (Abenaki for Lake Champlain) that have a lyrical feel. Waskow, in its curatorial statement, states that “Ojihozo is a sacred place for Aboriginal Abenakis. A central element of the Abenaki creation story, Ojihozo was a figure made of dust shed on planet Earth by the Creator. In these stories, Ojihozo is tasked with raising the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks before returning to the lake to become one with the Earth again. This piece of land is the remnant of Ojihozo’s final resting place. Douglas was exploring the meaning of origin stories, which are inevitably complex in our stories on many levels.
Douglas’ “Homeland Security” series is neatly set in its own partitioned section of the gallery with the warning that the content contains frontal nudity. Throughout the series, Douglas has used several cloned nude images of himself holding an M-16 assault rifle “defending” the “homeland” of oak trees, cows, cornfields, etc. It is unusual to see an expression of the aging white male musculature whose nakedness also reveals vulnerability in the softening of the chest and stomach. Douglas comments on the futility and absurdity of erroneous ideas of “defense” and the toxicity of many such impulses that often originate under the guise of US imperialism.
Douglas isn’t afraid to show his own vulnerability in “Catheter Security,” again a naked figure with a catheter inserted into his penis, draining himself into a plastic bag, still holding the assault rifle, as if it pointed to an even more absurd attempt at “defense”. against what cannot be controlled. In another evocation, “Suit Security”, he appears dressed as a businessman “armed with a camera, a rifle, a bandolier, a suit and a tie”.
NNEMoCA’s mission is to engage in an ongoing dialogue about the visual arts and contemporary culture and to create transformative experiences for visitors by challenging established perceptions. This exhibition is a courageous inauguration.
Contrasting with the amplitude of the politically inspired statements are multiple exquisite images of the Vermont that Douglas loved so much. “Mist Bow”, a study in shades of blue and gray is an atmospheric portrait of Lake Champlain. “Shadows” and “Gnarly Tree” are striking black and white photographs, which emphasize lines and shadows in a more classic photographic vein.
“Rox in the Sky,” a computer-generated image, is an open circle of egg-shaped stones above Lake Champlain with the Adirondacks in the background. It’s an ethereal vision like a classic Enso Zen, with peach-colored light breaking through the clouds in the center. Form and luminosity embody a kind of hope that is also possible, despite the complexities of the world. Waskow states that this series best showcases Douglas’ deep reverence for our planet Earth and demonstrates his continued faith and hope in the future of humanity despite overwhelming odds.
Douglas was clearly an extraordinary artist with deep vision and feeling, willing to take risks in expressing controversial viewpoints through his art, which evolved over decades. He once joked that he had been looking through a viewfinder for over 50 years. His experienced eye and endless imagination brought us the wonder of this impressive range of work. Kudos to NNEMoCa for showcasing the art of a true “original”.