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Scott Lobaido's construction on the Cargo Café in Staten Island

Detail of Lobaido's work

Detail of Giovanni da Modena's 1415 fresco in the San Petronio basilica in Bologna, depicting Mohammed in hell, tormented by demons

War Art
by Alan Moore

Driving by the Cargo Café, a one-story bar near the ferry terminal in Staten Island, it's impossible to miss the new décor. It's a giant spider with big metal legs, done in full relief, crawling across the front of the building, which has been painted with a blue-spangled web over Halloween colors. Orange and black, war and death. The beast has a victim clutched in its mandibles, wrapped up in websilk.

What's odd about the artwork is that the spider has the arms of the United States on its abdomen. The victim is Saddam Hussein.

This mural replaces another that had been on the same spot, a building-sized American flag with the rising shadows of the Trade Center superimposed on it. Both are the work of the patriotic artist Scott Lobaido, for whom this building has become a regular venue.

Inside, Lobaido's painting of a mounted, armor-clad Rudolph Giuliani riding through the ruins of the Twin Towers hangs over the bar.

This painting is not ironic. Nor was another of Lobaido's giant canvases, this one hanged (yes) in October of '01 inside the uncompleted steel frame of a four-story building along the highway shopping strip of Hylan Boulevard in southern Staten Island. It depicted an angry Uncle Sam -- nearly foaming at the mouth, as it seemed -- holding the severed heads of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The spider on the Cargo Café recalls a banner hung in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal after the first Gulf War as part of a "yellow ribbon" welcome-home for the troops exhibition. This banner depicted a spider crawling across an American flag, and the caption "Iraq-nophobia," punning off the title of a horror movie about insect fear. (Spiders, as a school child can tell you, are not insects but arachnids).

Now who is the spider? To depict the former spider as currently carapaced in the arms of the United States bespeaks a certain symbolic incoherence around the new drive to war.

Is this simply detournement -- what the Situationists called the reversal of meaning in their image combat with corporate spectacle -- of an image that could have seen service in the streets of Tehran in '79? The beast's body also evokes a flag-draped coffin, which seems appropriate, if probably unintentional.

In any war, representations are dragged in. Even looking may become a problem. Recent news reports carried the news that some Moroccan men were arrested in Bologna as they viewed a 15th century church fresco depicting Mohammed in hell. (That work is a hair-raising piece of medieval Christian propaganda, based on Dante's poem.) The men were charged with being members of an Al Qaeda cell plotting to blow up the cathedral.

ALAN MOORE is a New York critic, curator and art historian.