Big Boys' Toys

Model warplanes that look like they're ready to fly off the wall

William Laven's photos could be misconstrued as propaganda. This misreading can happen with the work of plenty of visual artists, but in the case of "William Laven: War Models" the charge of political advocacy might come from either side of the debate about war in general and Operation Iraqi Freedom in particular. Which is odd, because the photographs in question aren't controversial at first glance; they're merely images of unassembled model airplanes.

Shot on a black background and printed meticulously on huge expanses of luscious, archival-quality paper, the large-scale pictures are delicacies, whether revealing the steely sheen of the toys' unpainted wings or the rhythm of the grids connecting the tiny bits of pretend killing machine. Each photo shows a miniature version of an actual U.S. warplane currently in use over the Middle East at 1/72 the size of the plane it represents, giving the viewer a distinct sense of the scale of these aircraft.

Yet the artist realizes that somewhere between the loving reproduction of these playthings and the reality of the U.S. presence in Iraq is a powerful call for analysis. It just isn't clear what that analysis might be. "Years ago in a design magazine there was an article on handguns showing them as beautiful and finely designed," Laven explains in his press materials. "A lot of people reacted angrily. My hope is that there is a certain kind of detachment in my photographs that will prevent this exhibition from looking like a romanticism of the machinery of war." The director at the show's gallery, Griff Williams, seems to anticipate the opposite reaction: When he points out, in the same document, that "This show has a political component, but it's not up on a soapbox," it sounds like he thinks visitors will assume the exhibit makes an anti-war statement.

The B1 Bomber, aka the "Lancer": Just a 
William Laven
The B1 Bomber, aka the "Lancer": Just a toy.


The opening reception starts Friday, April 29, at 6 p.m. (and the exhibit continues through June 3)

Admission is free


Gallery 16, 1616 16th St. (at Rhode Island), S.F.

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Either way, the ambiguous meaning is part of the exhibit's allure, and both the politics and the craft are ready to fly off the page.

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