"Evil is easy, and has infinite forms." So said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher and scientist, in a quote now emblazoned on the gallery walls in the "Something Wicked This Way Comes" exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
"Wicked" takes on a subject that, by turns, can be disturbing, titillating or downright dark. Its look at representations of evil in 20th- and 21st-century art is provocative, visually rich and a great chance for the museum to show off some gems from its permanent collection that are not frequently seen.
The forms of evil seen here range from personal demons like drug use (such as young people shooting up in 1970s Oklahoma in Larry Clark's "Tulsa" photographs) to the fantastical to all-too-real political and military abuses.
One of the most vivid depictions of militarism gone haywire is Robert Arneson's color lithograph from 1986, "General Nuke." Recalling a time in which the US and USSR were locked in a cold war that threatened to blow us all to smithereens, Arneson presents us with a grotesque military commander whose features seem to morph into weapons. He's got a missile for a nose, and his giant, laughing maw reveals sharp teeth and a spray of bloody spittle. One of the many decorations on his uniform sports the motto "Kill a commie for mommie."
If that strikes you as too strident, there's the funky weirdness of James Pernotto's 1978 "No Evil Deed Live On" (don't miss the palindrome in that title). Pernotto depicts a strange man/robot hybrid with a body like Charles Atlas holding a bizarre probe that one imagines might be electrified.
A number of the artworks are things I wouldn't necessarily include in a show on evil -- but I like that they're here. Their placement in this context prodded me to consider them anew and imagine how they relate to the theme. For example, Alec Soth's 2002 photograph "Cemetery, Fountain City, WI" shows us a deserted Cenex gas station at nightfall. Right behind it is an old-looking cemetery and, looming behind that, a high, rocky bluff.
While Soth's image at first strikes me as being about the unseemly contrast between the ticky-tacky world of the convenience store and the solemnity of the graveyard behind it, the "wicked" theme made me give it a second thought. Perhaps it's also a comment on the way death lurks just beyond the surface of everyday life. One day you're gassing up your Honda and buying some Twinkies, and the next you're six feet under.
"Wicked" is a large but well-organized show filling the museum's main gallery spaces on the second floor. Included are quite a few of Wisconsin's best-known artists -- John Wilde, Warrington Colescott, Tom Uttech and others -- as well as some of the 20th century's biggest names, like Käthe Kollwitz, Georges Roualt and Andy Warhol. The pop master's colorful prints of dollar signs serve as a cheeky reminder of what may lie at the root of it all.