Report: San Francisco
Visiting a contemporary art museum in the United States in 2015, it’s easy to forget that we are currently a nation at war. “Art and Other Tactics: Contemporary Craft by Artist Veterans” brings the emotionally charged subject of war to the forefront, presenting art as both an antidote and a catharsis, for those who experienced it first-hand. The exhibition features a variety of art made by 23 US war veterans spanning over half a century: from WWII (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Gulf War (1990-1991) to the Iraq War (2003-2011). Curated by Emily Zaiden, director of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles, the show was developed along with the PBS film series “Craft in America,” Service episode. (The exhibition opened at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year, then traveled to the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco this fall, where it will remain on view through March 2016.) The artists featured were in the trenches, prisoners of war, navigating fighter planes, and working on battle vessels. Their stories, and the way they coped or express the struggles associated with war, emanate from their work.
The artists on view all benefitted from or were impacted by the GI Bill, which was introduced as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to assist veterans in acclimating back into society from WWII. But the Bill changed frequently over the next 60 years, becoming its least effective after the Vietnam War and for many years before its current iteration in 2008. There is a variety of work that was influenced by both the changing structure of the Bill’s benefit program and a direct correlation with the kind of wars that were being fought and the sentiments surrounding them. The work made after World War II spoke “to the idea that post-war prosperity allowed and encouraged people to buy,” thus fostering excitement to create a livelihood through art. The post-WWII art was often abstract, very functional work that questioned the formal roles of craft in the greater art landscape of the era. Later post-war sentiments, particularly after Vietnam, addressed the violence of war, and were concerned with psychological and humanitarian matters.
California clay sculptor Peter Voulkos is a seminal example of post-WWII enthusiasm and drive, creating life-size large, bold pieces that defied gravity and the kiln. For ceramic artist Frances Senska, the GI Bill opened up possibilities to think about art as a way to redirect her identity as a lieutenant in the Navy where she trained as a pilot: “I went back to school to get the vocabulary of art instead of ships.” Later she spearheaded the art department at Montana State and even taught fellow veteran Voulkos.
William Daley imbues his large-scale ceramic vessels with his experience in prison camp as a WWII POW. Subsequently, on his return, he came to view the vessel as a sacred space. Daley is still alive, making large-scale terracotta pots, following a Pragmatist approach introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce: “As an artist I practice so I can have belief,” Daley says in a conversation with Ben Carter of podcast “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler.” “I have belief so that I can trust, and I have trust because I make that first move.” Another hopeful post- WWII GI Bill story is that of Army Lieutenant JB Blunk, who while on furlough in Japan during the Korean War met the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The experience profoundly influenced his work when he returned to the US, blending Asian and NorCal influences to create his signature redwood reductive sculptures.
However, not all veterans’ art stories are as direct as in the post-WWII era. Vietnam veterans in general did not receive as warm of a welcome home as their predecessors. Additionally, cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and psychological damage due to civilian combat, as well as other factors such as exposure to Agent Orange, greatly impacted their quality of life after they returned. It is with these vets that we see a dramatic shift in art making away from functional objects and abstraction, toward more personal, material-driven conceptual works.
For example, the works in Michael Aschenbrenner’s haunting Damaged Bone series (ongoing from the late 1970s to present) were created as a result of experiencing injuries as a paratrooper in the Army from 1967 to 1970, during the Tet Offensive. Once discharged, he began his art pursuits as a ceramicist, but later shifted to glass because its malleability, translucency, and vulnerability, once hardened into its final state, perfectly captured the symbolic strength and fragility of bones. After the molten glass is shaped, the annealed pieces are conjoined with a variety of mixed materials such as gauze, leather or duct tape to represent ligaments and tree sticks simulate smaller bones. As Aschenbrenner reflects: “The object is the remaining statement left after we are gone. It is about life itself.” Thomas Orr’s Duc Pho (2013) features dozens of hand-thrown clay tea cups piled atop mounds of sandbags, representing the heavy burden of lives lost that he has carried with him over the decades after serving as an infantry officer in Vietnam.
The Gulf and Iraqi War veterans are the youngest group of artists, and their work often touches at the heart of difficult matters most directly. Ehren Tool served as a marine in the Gulf War in 1991. When shown in galleries, Tool’s cups, featuring fragmentary scenes that at times can be hard to look at, are meant to be taken by the viewer as “staring points for conversations about unspeakable things.” He has made more than 14,000 cups that he has given away—their intimate scale and nourishing symbolism are emotional food for thought, and a way to share peace in ways that war strives for, but completely fails. Likewise, Jesse Albrecht’s life-scale vessels are difficult to process; their painful imagery covering the raw clay surfaces. Halfway through getting his MFA in 2001 at University of Iowa in ceramics, Albrecht was deployed to Iraq. Ironically, ceramic plates are used in combat gear to stop bullets. His return home was difficult, as evident in the piece sardonically titled Suicide Hotline—Cheaper than Healthcare (2013).
Jessica Putnam-Phillips’ ceramic works are laden with difficult irony, as well. Having served as an Intelligence Specialist from 1995 to 2003, her dozens of vintage kitsch and ornately gilt floral plates are a commentary on issues of domesticity and service, featuring portraits of women soldiers in full combat gear, many holding assault rifles. Their message of unending war violence seems that much more ironic when seen in the context of kitchenware so popular during that hopeful post-WWII era of the past. Indeed, as this exhibition celebrates, where war ends, sometimes art begins. However, also evident is the fact that there really doesn’t seem to be an end to war in sight.