Crux of War Depicted in Human Terms
Published: March 23, 2008
“Intimacies of Distant War,” now at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, examines some of the ways American artists are trying to come to terms with the Iraq war. This is a contentious subject, but the intention of the curator, Brian Wallace, is not to make any sort of political statement but to prompt discussion.
Of course, artists have long been outspoken commentators on war. Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica,” which memorializes the death of innocent civilians during the Spanish Civil War, is perhaps the most famous antiwar image ever produced — a tall order to live up to, but the artists here try.
Before his death in 2004, Leon Golub, a New York artist, painted small, provocative studies of anonymous, defenseless figures being beaten, tortured and mauled by dogs. He is alluding to the events associated with the war in Iraq, which although now well known still have the power to shock.
The Philadelphia-based Daniel Heyman mines similar historical turf, making graphic cartoonlike watercolors and prints based on the testimony of Abu Ghraib detainees. For several days, the artist sat in on interviews conducted by human rights lawyers with former inmates, depicting their stories of mental and physical abuse. This is difficult material for an artist to work with, confronting viewers with events they may prefer to forget.
Steve Mumford has made numerous trips to Iraq over the past five years, documenting in hundreds of watercolor sketches the lives of the Iraqi people and their interactions with the American forces. A group of 10 of these astonishingly revealing and engaging works is showing here.
I have seen Mr. Mumford’s drawings in museums and galleries over the past few years, but it never ceases to amaze me just how captivating they are. Some of them are based on news photographs, others on direct observation or experience, the pictures hastily drawn on the spot. The ones here focus on innocent people displaced and daily life disrupted. They are often rudimentary and sometimes even smudged with dust or sweat, but it only adds authenticity. They capture the atmosphere on the ground in a way photography cannot.
Lida Abdul, born in Kabul but now based in Los Angeles, tries to give us a view of life in war zones from the perspective of those who live there. Her video about Afghanistan, “Brick Sellers of Kabul” (2006), shows a line of boys in the desert stacking bricks under the eye of an older man, who hands them a few coins. The dialogue between the paymaster and boys suggests the bricks have been pillaged from the ruins of homes destroyed during the war.
We encounter a similar-looking landscape in the photographs of An-My Le, who is Vietnamese born and New York based, though nothing is as it seems. Her images are of a marine training camp in the Southern California desert, sections of which have been made over to look like an Iraqi village, with anti-American graffiti scribbled on building walls. Here the young trainees enact various combat scenarios before shipping out for deployment in the Middle East, or maybe some future war.
Mark Hogancamp, an Eddyville-based artist, imagines what a future war may look like. He takes close-up color photographs documenting posed, obsessively detailed set-piece war scenes using hundreds of scale-model military figures and related military objects. Each photograph is like an episode in a continuing war, which appears to be happening somewhere in central Europe. Though we know it isn’t real, the imagery of death is still provocative.
To suggest an artistic pedigree for the work showing here, the curator has included a few antiwar protest artworks from the 1960s. Notable among them is the 1965 film “Viet-Flakes” by the New York artist Carolee Schneemann. This record of war and its atrocities shows a collection of graphic Vietnam War images compiled over five years by the artist from magazines and newspapers. In these images death and misery abound, reminding you of the terrible human cost of war.
“Intimacies of Distant War,” Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 75 South Manheim Boulevard, State University of New York at New Paltz. Through April 13. Information: (845) 257-3844 or at www.newpaltz.edu/museum.