E-mailing a form letter to your congressman is one thing, but getting out your welder, your tubes of paint or your needle and thread to make an artwork about war is an especially personal form of protest. After the 4th of July holiday, the Art Car Museum sent out an open call for work for a show called "WAR," and hung up every one of the 106 pieces received.
"It's the best straw poll of public opinion out there," says curator T. Mitchell Jones. "We've got people from everywhere. We have work done by a prison guard, work by well-known artists and a work by a six-year-old kid name Bruiser. We even had a socialite in pearls drop off artwork."
I'm not going to tell you everything in the show is great (it's not), but as an outpouring of public protest, it's pretty impressive. And there is enough intriguing work to make the trip worthwhile.
Right inside the door, Penny Smith's ancient Mac computer (circa 1991) rests on the corner of a display case. It's plastered with red, white and blue tiles and decorated with parts from plastic skeletons, a plastic eagle and an American flag and wrapped with barbed wire. On top of the monitor rests a little Halloween-style gravestone with a skull and angel wings that reads "RIP." The decoration is heavy-handed, to say the least, but the computer screen is where all the power lies. The names, ages and dates of death of American soldiers slowly fade in and out of the screen. They are listed in order, slowly counting up from the first soldier killed all the way into the 3,700s. Nineteen-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew D. Puckett was the 1,025th. It takes almost an hour and a half just to see all the names.
The show has more than its share of paintings depicting carnage and destruction, but two work especially well, both as art and as political statements. David Kidd's tiny painting The Line in the Sand is easily missed, hung high on the wall next to the reception desk. It's flatly painted and surreally depicts flames, jets and a giant skull in the sand. The imagery sounds over-the-top, but Kidd's composition and abstracted environment make the painting work.
Meanwhile, Tanja Vaughn's The Fruits of Our Labor depicts a bunch of maimed little Iraqi children. It sounds horrible, but it's not a horrible painting. Vaughn isn't going for gore and shock — her colors are restrained and grayed down, and the way she paints the children is far from photorealistic. The images are simplified and kind of childlike, and the effect is somber and mournful without being exploitative.
Kenneth James Beasley's collages are much more abstract but manage to feel quite visceral. In two strong works, each entitled Landfill Collage 2006, Study for (The Countless and Accounted For), Beasley cuts out and collages images from magazines into organic, oozy blobs. Photographs of billowing fabric, a pair of legs, a munitions belt and hands clasping a gun are melded together into roiling masses. Beasley's collages look elegant but conjure up a feeling of carnage.
Addressing the macho origins of war, Che's Untitled presents a circle of stretched and stuffed jockstraps. Isn't it interesting how a circle of panties just wouldn't have the same effect?
Mary Jenewein has made some really unsettling work that also uses fabric. She re-created the Abu Ghraib photos using stuffed doll-like figures arranged in tiny little diorama boxes. The boxes are hung on the wall, and each is illuminated with a single bulb and enclosed with wire fencing. Behind the wire, dogs attack little naked dolls, other naked dolls are piled up like cordwood and a flag-wrapped marine doll stands next to them smiling. In others, naked dolls are chained to their bunks, and a doll poses on a box wearing a pointed black hood and jumper cables attached to his hands. Jenewein includes reproductions of the Abu Ghraib photos in each diorama. It's unnecessary, but considering the subject matter, you forgive her for overstating the point. If the subject were anything else, the work would seem cute, but as it is, the figures feel almost more unsettling than the photos. Depicting adult horrors with childlike materials is creepy and effective; it gets under your skin.
And speaking of children, six-year-old Bruiser Goldberg has a definite future as a conceptual artist. His collage of playing cards presents a series of games of War stuck to the page. As anyone who has ever played War knows, it is about as protracted and pointless as the actual Iraq war.
Mike Drever presents a found object, a paint-by-numbers set depicting a battle with flaming 18th-century warships. The text on the package next to the picture of the blazing galleons ironically reads, "Perfect for beginners." Meanwhile, Kevin Bailey has a more direct and contemporary approach; he made a yellow, diamond-shaped road sign with a pictogram that shows a car swerving to avoid a cartoon bomb. The text reads: "I.E.D.'S NEXT 100 YEARS."
Tim Glover, who just had a whole show of war-themed work at Poissant Gallery, cut the shape of the United States out of a thick piece of metal. He excised the shape of a Hummer from the middle, pointedly filled the space with oil and even more pointedly titled the work Greedy Needy Nation.
The show is a political free-for-all, just the kind of thing the privately owned Art Car Museum does best. Chris Hedrick neatly sums things up with his contribution — he cut out the letter M and placed it next to a beautifully rendered peach. His title: "Impeach the Bastards."
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