Considering the Art of War

CPL Robert Bates
CPL Robert Bates, "Portrait of Aaron Mankin," 2011.

Earlier in the month I was working on an essay about Jarrett Min Davis, an artist who depicts battle scenes. With paintings by Francisco Goya, Otto Dix and Leon Golub as well as military-themed work by younger artists like Steve Mumford and Davis on my mind, I looked forward to The Joe Bonham Project at Storefront. Curated by New Criterion managing editor  James Panero, the exhibition comprises portraits of injured United States and coalition military personnel made by members of the International Society of War Artists and the Society of Illustrators who have served in the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. As I looked at images of multiple amputees, my heart went out to the soldiers depicted and I appreciated both the illustrators’ technical ability to evoke the injured soldiers’ pain and loss and their desire to draw attention to the challenges facing wounded veterans. At the same time, lacking a compelling point of view other than empathy, the drawings don’t rise above the illustrative to examine deeper truths about the legacies of war.

Victor Juhasz
Victore Juhasz, "Portrait of SGT Jason Ross--USMC (Full Frontal)," 2011

In defining their role strictly as documentary, the illustrators of The Joe Bonham Project may not have sufficiently appreciated that how they draw the scenes is as important as what they draw. Imagine if Otto Dix had merely tried to render battle scenes accurately in pen and ink instead of scratching and burning the images onto metal etching plates, or Leon Golub had simply settled for capturing the likenesses of Vietnam-era GIs rather than to forge scumbled and scraped images of mythical mercenaries on a monumental scale. Their work would not have had such enduring resonance.

Unlike photographs, which are made in an instant, drawing from life takes time. To create the drawings and paintings in the exhibition, the artists visited the soldiers in the hospital, and, as they listened to their stories, documented what they saw. The task of drawing the soldiers afforded the artists permission to stare, and some if not all of the wounded soldiers may have been grateful for the attention and honesty involved in the process. Hanging the images on a gallery wall, however, suggests that there is more at play than documentation. The drawing style, reminiscent of advertising art from the fifties and, to a lesser degree, the iconic World War II cartoons of Bill Mauldin, seems naive and inadequate for images of a twenty-first century war of complex origin, involving questionable strategy and tactics and substantial public ambivalence. The implicit conceit of the show — and of “The Joe Bonham Project” — is that we all should support the troops serving in America’s wars regardless of their political and strategic ambiguities. I think that’s true, and most Americans would agree with me. But to create enduring resonance, images of war must go beyond documentation. Art requires an argument, and the Storefront show falls short of making one.

The Joe Bonham Project, curated by James Panero, at Storefront (16 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) run through September 18. Artists include Lance Corporal Robert Bates, USMC, Peter Buotte; CWO2 Michael D. Fay, USMC (retired), Jeffrey Fisher, Roman Genn, Bill Harris, Richard Johnson, and Victor Juhasz.

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