The Art of War
Exhibition forces us to see soldiers as artists
Published: December 5, 2012
Combat Paper Project
Through Dec. 10 at the UMBC Special Collections in the Albin O. Kuhn Library
Two thoughts flood the brain when the eyes drink in Dominic Fredianelli’s pen-and-colored-marker “Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You” in the Combat Paper Project exhibition currently on view at UMBC’s Special Collections gallery. One is immediate; the second nearly imperceptible, the way a luxury car’s heated seat warms your entire mood from the bottom up. Fredianelli, a National Guardsman, has drawn a gaunt man’s face. He looks exhausted to the point of catatonia. His bloodshot eyes almost slide off his cheeks, weighed down by the folds of heavy bags under them. A hand-rolled cigarette sheepishly juts from the side of his mouth. And the top of his head is missing. In its place is a mushroom cloud of smoke. Filling the area where the brain would be are piles of empty bottles, and four placard signs sprout up from the rubble. They read: “suicide, dui, hurt, lost.” It’s an instant reminder of that heinous statistic that came to light all too quietly this year: that the suicide rate of active-duty military personnel has eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle. The image is a kick to the teeth, a thermonuclear explosion of pain.
Keep looking, though, and you begin to notice a few other things about it other than the power of its subject matter—chiefly, that the subject matter wouldn’t hit so hard if the illustration itself wasn’t so competent. It’s a sly drawing. The face is a craggy road map of lines, economically creating this feeling of skin trying to retreat from bone, the eyeball’s capillaries achieved in the slightest filigrees of red. But it’s not a realistic or naturalistic rendering; its vocabulary has more in common with the exaggerations of underground comics. This visual language is executed on a piece of paper about the dimensions of a DIY poster for an indie show, and the piece starts to accrue a currency of the vernacular: It’s something that’s part of the everyday visual language we speak. And if you keep looking, you might hit upon the disarming reminder: “Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You” was created by somebody making artistic decisions. The person doing that just happens to be a member of the military.
Both of those impressions are Combat Paper’s discombobulating combination of punches. It’s a small show, only 29 items; sometimes the images themselves deliver a knockout. And sometimes just paying attention to what went into their creation becomes a series of body blows that prompts you to see a soldier as an artist. For some reason, “art” is the last word that comes to mind when thinking about the military. And whatever ideas and beliefs inform your impression of current U.S. military activities, discounting the possibility that a member of the military could be an artistic thinker can be as passively dehumanizing as the active disenfranchisement and psychological stress that so many veterans and military personnel face every day.
As the literature accompanying the exhibition says, veterans have been making art as long as nations have been fighting wars. It’s an obvious observation that deserves to be said out loud, and Combat Paper does so through its very process. It is both exhibition and project, launched as a workshop project in 2007 by veteran Drew Cameron and artist Drew Mattot. In 2004, following an Iraq deployment, Cameron took a paper-making class led by Mattot at a studio in Burlington, Vt. Cameron decided to cut up his uniform and use its fibers to create a pulp that could be turned into paper, which led to a series of workshops inviting other vets to cut up their uniforms to create paper for the imagery. In 2008, the Combat Paper Project started touring the country, and by 2009, enough pieces had been created to start touring exhibitions in conjunction with lectures and workshops. Another installment of the Combat Paper is currently showing at University of Maryland’s Stamp Gallery in College Park through Dec. 15.
Selections from the project were included in MICA’s 2008 exhibition Art Against War, and their allure is embedded in the process. The project states that its mission is to “assist veterans in reconciling and sharing their personal experiences as well as broadening the traditional narrative surrounding service and the military culture.” The healing possibilities of “art therapy” for soldiers has been part of the veteran discussion since British artist Adrian Hill and artist/veteran Edward Adamson laid the groundwork for the discipline in the years following World War II.
No doubt creative outlets can play a role in helping veterans cope with issues: nonverbal communication helps people, in general, articulate what they haven’t found a way to say with language. But let’s not forget that soldiers are men and women who had creative impulses before they entered the military and may choose to continue those pursuits afterward. Robert Rauschenberg? He served. Ditto Johnny Cash, Tito Puente, Harry Belafonte, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Mystikal, and Ice-T. Hell, in the new Why Jazz Happened, jazz journalist Marc Myers points out the important role military bands and the G.I. Bill played in the developments of the art form in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Remembering all of that is one of this exhibition’s greatest gifts: Combat Paper is a casual reminder that the only things separating a soldier from being an artist are the same things that separate anybody from being an artist: talent, discipline, and opportunity. And taking in the work collapses whatever cultural distance may artificially exist between the civilian viewer and veteran artist. Sometimes it’s the poignant words of the work’s text. Army vet Jan Barry provides the text to Marines vet Jon Michael Turner’s print “Make a New History,” which reads: “In harsh, benighted lands/ child soldiers learn early/ how to kill each other/ with little skills/ but gory practice.” Sometimes it’s the striking imagery, as in Navy vet Mary Bloom’s “Alone,” a print in which Bloom offers a series of small figures in silhouette dotting the bottom of a stark blue page. One figure towers above the others in height and girth, and the image becomes a quietly startling realization of conspicuousness being the source of ostracism.
And sometimes the words and imagery comes together is an almost lyrical combinations. Jan Barry’s “Costs of War (2nd Version)” looks like a simple announcement at first: red text on dark paper, the sort of signage that typically announces an alert of some kind. Its text offers a blunt laundry list of war’s costs—“legless armless homeless veterans,” “ghostly villages full of ghastly graves,” “billions spent billions still due”—that establishes a rhythmic depression. Behind that red text, Barry has distilled those ideas into four words rendered in stylized typeface almost the same color as the paper: “ruins, shattered, generations, residue.” The overwhelming effect of this message is offset by the irreverent cheek that achieved it: Barry riffed on the visual language of camouflage. Well played, soldier. Well played.
> Email By Bret Mccabe