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Jim Starrett

American, b. 1937

Untitled
1984-1985

Acrylic on canvas
38.25 x 30.25 x 2.5 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1999.31

Gesturing toward both the spatial distortions of M. C. Escher and the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico, Jim Starrett’s Untitled (1984–85) is an image of a roofless chamberlike space containing a chair, a small window set high in a wall, and a set of stairs apparently leading to a lower room. Though it is not abstract, it possesses the otherworldly quality of a dreamscape in which there is a collision of space, symbol, and object. But what is this space? A living room? Waiting room? Office? Prison cell?

The unease generated by the painting’s refusal to allow us to define it in any straightforward way is enhanced by the presence of two of Western culture’s most powerful symbols, a crucifix and a swastika, so recognizable that their meaning seems obvious. But their juxtaposition is meant to highlight what Starrett claims was “the role played by organized Christian religions in the Holocaust.” The image’s harsh angularity expresses the awkward and discomforting implications of this belief.

The stark shadows and severe lines, inverted crosses, bombs, and militaristic imagery (from cascading ordnance to the SS insignia) are meant to be provocative, and indeed they are. The painting needed restoration after being vandalized during a show at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in 2012, when an apparently disgruntled patron scratched across the swastika with a marker pen. The precise intention of the anonymous attacker will never be known, but perhaps the troubling connections suggested by the work were too unsettling. No symbol ever has only one meaning, and though we need not agree with Starrett’s political points, we surely must acknowledge that this moving and powerful piece asks extremely important questions.

David Wall


Keywords
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This object has the following keywords:
  • arrow
  • chair
  • circles
  • cross
  • ladders - Frames, usually of wood or metal, consisting of two side pieces called stiles which are connected by crosspieces, usually round, called rungs; used as a means of climbing up or down.
  • lightning - An abrupt discontinuous natural electric discharge in the atmosphere.
  • optical illusion - Deceptive visual phenomena induced by the refraction of light as it passes through one substance to another or by atmospheric conditions that manipulate light rays.
  • rhombuses - Geometric figures having four equal sides and equal opposite angles, particularly where there are no right angles, as contrasted with a square; an oblique equilateral parallelogram.
  • Rosary - Sources:
    - Concise dict. theol.
    - Encyc. dict. rel.
    - New Cath. encyc.
    - New Schaff-Herzog
  • shadow
  • stairs
  • stitches - Refers to portions of thread left in fabric or another material by the in and out movement of a threaded needle through the thickness or surface of the material. It also refers to the loops of thread created on a needle in knitting or other needlework.
  • swastika
  • windows

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