Welcome to "Atomic Afterimage," Keely Orgeman's provocative exhibit at the Boston University Art Gallery that discovers terrible beauty and a few grim chuckles in the aboveground nuclear tests of the 1940s and 1950s.
For those who lived through the Cold War, Armageddon glowed with the radiance of the world's biggest thermonuclear flashbulb popping on and then off - forever.
As an art historian and curator, Keely Orgeman has mined the nuclear arms race for the apocalyptic imagery that seared a generation's imagination.
A mushroom fireball erupts over Bikini Atoll. Splay-legged cows lie smoking in the desert like flame-broiled steaks. While Mom fusses with her makeup, Junior reads a comic on a bunk in the family fallout shelter.
Welcome to "Atomic Afterimage," Orgeman's provocative exhibit at the Boston University Art Gallery that discovers terrible beauty and a few grim chuckles in the aboveground nuclear tests of the 1940s and 1950s.
A teacher and doctoral student at Boston University, she has brought together 10 disparate artists who explore the interplay of politics and aesthetics through the depiction of nuclear test blasts and their consequences.
Subtitled "Cold War Imagery in Contemporary Art," the exhibit features 25 images that are gorgeous and manipulative agitprop, haunting and darkly absurd.
"The art delivers strong political messages without being heavy-handed," said Orgeman. "I think the display will be both aesthetically pleasing and psychologically unsettling because of the incredibly dark, yet beautiful, subject matter."
Orgeman organized the exhibit as part of a three-year teaching fellowship. Now pursuing a doctorate, she is currently serving as a curatorial intern at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The exhibit showcases, she said, art that incorporates declassified reports and more conceptual pieces based on material still classified.
Describing the exhibit, Orgeman said the artists address complex themes such as the government's misuse of nuclear images to minimize dangers to the public and the power of "sublimely beautiful" nuclear images to distill fear about dangers posed by nuclear testing.
Setting the tone, Orgeman has included a declassified government film showing a 1946 atomic test in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Discussing safety measures, a stentorian-voiced narrator notes that when the blinding nuclear flash occurred "sunglasses are worn by some (military observers) while others hide their eyes." Hmmmmmm, that should be sufficient.
Manipulating archival prints of actual nuclear tests, Michael Light recreated several nuclear landscapes of stunning beauty. Robert Longo examines how images of nuclear tests merge into our perceptions of natural calamities and terrorist acts.
Searching for hidden U.S. government test sites, Richard Misrach photographs animal carcasses in postures suggestive of nuclear testing gone wild.
"The works point to ideological connections between the nuclear age and the present but they do so in very subtle ways," said Orgeman.
"Rather than creating works clearly about the spectacle of nuclear testing, artists like Longo simply exaggerate the scene's drama through scale and medium."
Marc Mitchell, the gallery's interim director, called the exhibit "a great topic for the times with the political situation in the world today."
"It reminds people of the past and current situations. It not only helps to educate students who are not aware of the past but it also helps teach them the history of what went on then as opposed to what could go on now," he said.
Like Orgeman, Mitchell has noticed visitors' reactions often reflect their prior exposure to the Cold War imagery of the 1940s and 1950s.
"There's certainly a substantial difference how people are reacting to the art in the show. Younger students seem to be reacting with some awe at something they've heard about but not actually witnessed. It seems to have a 'once upon a time' quality for them," he said. "The reaction of older visitors seems more mixed. They certainly seem to be mixing in their own interpretations and recollections. I think (the art on display) is bringing back memories they might not want to confront."
Mitchell credited Orgeman for creating a thoughtful exhibit "that works on a number of different levels."
"Keely has brought together works by artists who work in varied media. Many pieces are spectacular in ways that can touch viewers," he said.
Like "duck-and-cover" safety drills of the 1950s that sent a generation of school kids crouching beneath desks in case a Russkie nuke landed on Our Town, "Atomic Afterimage" is scary and funny at the same time.
Orgeman said she is not surprised by what appears to be a "generation gap" in how viewers of different ages react to the images of mushroom clouds rising over test sites that were, at the time, stand-ins for New York and Moscow.
At the same time, some viewers might feel, "This is not your mother's apocalypse."
Contemplating a contemporary Armageddon when "dirty bombs" fit into suitcases, anthrax ends up in mailboxes and the climate seems to have turned against us, "Atomic Afterimage" almost evokes a sort of nostalgia for a simpler kind of Doomsday. Oh, for the good old days of Mutually Assured Destruction when Krushchev and JFK harangued each other over the Red Phone but kept their fingers off the nuclear trigger.
Orgeman has brought together artists whose primary focus is to show how the government used nuclear test imagery to manipulate public opinion, mostly into believing that just plain folks could survive by hiding out in a basement or backyard bomb shelter stocked with food and water.
If the show had been larger, it would have been instructive to explore how that naivete eventually gave way to the atomic paranoia that spawned the countless nuclear zombie flicks from Godzilla to "On the Beach" and "Omega Man."
One wonders how Orgeman might handle the evolution of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel "The Last Man on Earth" as portrayed by Vincent Price, Charleton Heston and lovable Will Smith in "I Am Legend."
Perhaps as more rogue states try to develop their own nuclear weapons, a terrified public demands Apocalypse Lite with a happy ending.
Growing up in the 1950s near a Nike Hercules missile battery, Vincent Johnson seems to have developed the same grim humor Stanley Kubrick infused in his Cold War classic film, "Dr. Strangelove."
In his funny, creepy 30-by-40-inch "American Cold War Shelters," he constructs a montage of pages and covers from Life magazine and popular science-type journals showing how "life could go on as usual" in cozy, prefab shelters where kids in flannel shirts wait out nuclear war playing board games with their parents. In one image, a clueless looking Ward Cleaver type sticks his head outside the shelter hatch as if to see if the Strontium 90 has all blown away.
As Orgeman's "Atomic Afterimage" makes abundantly clear, that sort of dopey innocence went out of style long ago.
The exhibit runs through Nov. 2, or the end of the world, whichever comes first.
The Boston University Art Gallery is located at 855 Commonwealth Ave. at the Stone Gallery inside the College of Fine Arts building on the B.U. campus.
It is located on the B.U. West MBTA stop on the B Green Line.
Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
On Friday, Sept. 26, at 4 p.m. Joy Garnett will discuss how archives and the Internet affected her works in this show.
On Friday, Oct. 24, curator Keely Orgeman will discuss the exhibit at 4 p.m.
For more information, visit www.bu.edu/art.
The MetroWest Daily News