Roger Palmer lets the Dogs out

Childlike artworks underscore the horrors of war

click to enlarge CASUALTIES OF WAR: Roger Palmer's "War dogs leave the home" uses childlike imagery to convey the aftermath of battle. - Courtesy The Artist And Usf Cam
Courtesy The Artist And Usf Cam
CASUALTIES OF WAR: Roger Palmer's "War dogs leave the home" uses childlike imagery to convey the aftermath of battle.

When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. —J.S. Mill

When philosopher John Stuart Mill evoked those brutal images in 1862, he was actually writing in favor of war, but only in cases that "protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice ... give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice." There are worse things than war, he wrote in an essay for Harper's, namely losing the will to fight for anything.

Still, Mill's words offer a chilling portrait of war's tendency to dehumanize, turning people on either side into instruments and victims. Though most Americans doubt the Iraq War is worth fighting — and whether it meets Mill's requirements is up for debate — few people would say the issue is cut and dried. Some disapprove of Bush but empathize with the troops; others think Saddam was evil but wonder if his absence has really improved life for Iraqi civilians. Picking sides (red or blue?) hardly does justice to the complexity of the question: Is (this) war right or wrong?

Visitors won't find answers, per se, in an exhibit of work by Tampa artist Roger Palmer at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum, but they will find plenty of food for thought. Palmer's satirical drawings in a childlike hand take aim at repressive militaristic forces in the world without spitting out a simplistic moral message. In them, crippled "war dogs" return from battle, upper-crust gentlemen lead cannons on leashes through the woods, and a fanged cat considers whether to kill a pack of puppies destined to become vicious. Despite the subtext of violence, there's humor here — and an invitation to tap into shared pain.

Beneath each image, a line of poetry adds another layer of meaning. "The streets got a lot quieter when they taught the smart cannon to hunt certain kinds of music," reads the Orwellian caption beneath a picture of cannons roaming a city under siege. The product isn't exactly a cartoon — "you couldn't put this in the New Yorker," Palmer says during an interview in his studio — but it has roots in comedy of a decidedly bleak nature. Add a layer of social commentary, the shifting depths of a Zen koan and a spectrum of surreal colors on a field of white paper, and you just might have a recipe for Palmer's pictures. Bloody conflict, they suggest, is equally a horror and an inevitable part of human nature — like rabid soccer fandom, political partisanship or killing animals for food. Laugh, cry, or you just might go fucking insane.

The bearer of this ambiguous message is himself a study in complexity, though he would be the first to say he's no more complicated than anyone else. Raised on a cattle ranch in Ocala, Palmer grew up observing that his grandfather's progressive views about race relations (acquired in his native Oregon) didn't sit well with neighbors. He became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and attended USF, where he earned a master's degree in fine arts (and met his future wife, then-professor of art Mernet Larsen).

Since 1970, he has engaged in a solitary studio practice, alternating between steady consumption of mass media — hours on the Internet with an occasional dose of Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh "to know who the enemy is," Palmer says — and the ritual of remixing imagery and real-world inspiration into his drawings. In fact, his practice has become so solitary that Palmer hasn't had a solo show since 1985, though he has been selected for group exhibitions.

That period away from the public eye may have served him well: The current enthusiasm for figuration, politically charged work and graphic narrative makes Palmer's drawings seem utterly of-the-moment, despite the fact that artistic fashion is the last thing on the creator's mind.

David Norr, USF Graphicstudio's Curator of Exhibitions and Special Projects, first met Palmer four years ago; since then, Norr says, the prospect of showcasing a Tampa artist deserving of wider recognition has only become increasingly urgent.

"I think, magically, [Palmer's work] seems incredibly fresh — like a 20something could be drawing these," he says.