Cannons will boom, American flags will flutter and re-enactors will sweat in cotton and wool on Saturday, when Baltimore again marks the best-known moment in the War of 1812 – the booting out of the British.
But a new show at the Wind-up Space, “OSAYCANYOUSEE,” asks us to look beyond the standard rockets-red-glare iconography being presented at Fort McHenry on “Defenders Day” this weekend and across Baltimore, in this War of 1812 bicentennial year:
There’s a photo of the business end of a baseball bat with the image of the grinning Cleveland Indians mascot lasered into it.
There’s a pyramidal stack of cannonballs topped with the “eye of providence,” evoking war and the dollar bill.
And there are a lot of letters – the lyrics of the National Anthem produced in run-on fashion, just the way it feels sometimes when we mindlessly sing the familiar song while our minds are on the imminent kick-off or first pitch.
“It was really our first American war, the first war we declared as a nation, it set up a lot of themes that recur up to today – the idea of Manifest Destiny, of American expansionism,” said Nolen Strals, who created the work along with fellow artist and graphic designer Bruce Willen.
“One reason we got into the war was to take over land the British were controlling, to expand into Indian territory, into Canada,” Willen said. “Those weren’t perhaps the main reason for the war but they were definitely a part of it.”
Words and Letters and Meaning
As it turns out, the starting point for the show (running from Sept. 8 through Oct. 27) was not the need to set that history straight but the allure of “some cool old type.”
Given the chance by Mary Mashburn of the Globe Poster Collection to use the legendary Baltimore print shop’s antique wood type – “it was beat up and not taken care of but had this gorgeous patina” – Strals and Willen looked for some words that were hoary and heavy enough to deserve it.
The National Anthem came to mind.
“It’s a really intense and violent song about war. You don’t even really think about that a lot of times,” Willen said.
Thinking about fonts is an average day at the office for Strals and Willen, who head the art and design firm Post Typography in lower Charles Village and teach at Maryland Institute College of Art.
In four hand-printed serigraphs (produced with printers Kim Bentley and Kyle Van Horn, of Baltimore Print Studios) they re-conceive “The Star-Spangled Banner” in fields of abstract typography, running the letters together. (Look for the piece with a special nod to the Baltimore Orioles, an orange “O” – a reference to the way the crowd at O’s games yells a locally-accented “O” in the middle of the song.)
Running all those letters together simultaneously, Willen said, underlines their intended meaning “and creates interesting new words, possible new meanings.”
Where Enduring Symbols Started
Moving from the song to the war that inspired it, the artists produced other images and objects “touching on themes of baseball, capitalism and violence” as they say in the their printed descriptions of the show.
They layer the work with the imagery of pop culture, patriotism and American history. Each piece in the show takes its title from lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“Bombs Bursting in Air,” for instance, is an explosion of modern pop-culture images inside that all-seeing eye.
The piece is conveying how the psychedelic image of fireworks exploding has its origins in that celebrated moment of violence, Strals said, “and how it’s seen now as an almost commercial image.”
OSAYCANYOUSEE also reminds viewers that the war included fronts besides Baltimore’s harbor – the attack on Canada and the invasion of native peoples’ homelands throughout the interior of the continent.
Images of “Indians” recur in the work. Native peoples generally sided with the British, thinking it would halt American expansionism but the war, by its end, proved devastating for them. “The Home of the Brave” depicts a page of Star Spangled Banner sheet music formed into a cone-shaped tipi.
Willen says they’re not forgetting the British warships impressing American sailors at sea, or the the torching of Washington, D.C., but they’re hoping to get people to think more deeply about other aspects of the war and the way it shaped American cultural values and national identity.
“We just want to see that some essential parts don’t get swept under the rug.”