SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco War Memorial Veteran’s Building hosts an eclectic group of arts organizations. For many years it housed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, several theaters, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) gallery, and an array of Veteran’s organizations. Today the art museum is long gone, but several arts and veterans-service organizations remain.
Honoring and advancing the building’s legacy, SFAC Director Meg Shiffler and co-curator Jason Hanasik have installed a powerful new exhibition in the Arts Commission Gallery. Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces forges a bridge between the public at large and the Bay Area veteran’s community. Organized thematically, the exhibition begins with work related to the Vietnam War but has a stronger focus on America’s many conflicts from the 1980s to the present, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shiffler and Hanasik have included artworks made by veterans as well as by their siblings and spouses. It is a deeply affecting exhibition and one that has evoked a strong response from the community. “The veterans who attend have been moved,” Shiffler told me, “and many have been back multiple times to spend more time with the show.” She added that the SFAC staff has been doing significant outreach to the general population. “Unlike other exhibitions, we’re finding that most visitors want to engage with the staff in various ways. We are a municipal gallery dedicated to engaging artists and artwork in exhibitions that promote civic dialogue, and Not Alone is anchoring an incredible foundation of respect, information flow, and open dialogue.”
A tremendous amount of thought has gone into this show. “This is not an exhibition about war or the military-industrial complex,” Shiffler said. “It is about people who have served — about their hardships, pride, fears, relationships, and so much more.” The timing of the exhibition is intentional as well: It opened around Veterans Day and will remain on display through mid-March — coinciding with the beginning of the Trump presidency. “The reason this exhibition is so important in this extremely political moment is that it provides access to a complicated and difficult subject matter through the vehicle of storytelling that intends to open up and bridge dialogue between civilians and those who have served, individual to individual.”
The journey through this exhibition is intense and demands some time. Though not exactly a joyful show, it is one filled with beautiful and affecting works. Photography in particular is a stand-out medium with which to express the profoundly mixed emotions of war and peace. Suzanne Opton’s large-scale black-and-white photos from the series “Soldier + Citizen” (2005) are close-up portraits of American soldiers in between deployments, each of whom is being gently touched or embraced by a loved one. The hard, unwavering eyes of the soldiers looking away from the camera are a sharp contrast to the soft hands that touch their faces, hair, and necks, as if the warmth of a loved one’s embrace could break the spell of war. These are clearly posed portraits, and each has a delicacy and elegance of design that belies the underlying sadness of the subject.
Jessica Hines’ project “My Brother’s War” (2007–16) is the artist’s sensitive attempt to reconcile and artistically reconnect with her brother, who committed suicide 10 years after his return from Vietnam. Using his letters and “souvenir” photos from the 1960s, Hinds went to Vietnam to retrace her brother’s steps. She has combined his now-vintage photos with imagery from her trip and snippets of his letters to create a visual narrative that weaves their two stories together. Many of the photos have the slightly “blasted” look of overexposed Kodachrome, and often the light is deliberately a bit too harsh, the color a little off-kilter. But the imagery is delicately constructed — echoing, perhaps, the elusive nature of memory. As part of the gallery’s ongoing public art installation along Market and Van Ness Streets, the curators have used these images to create 36 posters for outdoor public display on kiosks Printed large, they look like an almost psychedelic journey.
One of the most original projects in the show is by ceramicist Ehren Tool, who enlisted in the Marines in 1989 and served in both the Desert Shield and Desert Storm conflicts. After his discharge, Tool used the GI Bill to go to Pasadena City College and the University of Southern California. He then went on to receive his MFA at UC Berkeley in 2005.
Tool has set up a potter’s studio in the SFAC gallery. He is in residence almost every weekend, throwing hundreds of cups, which, at the conclusion of the show, he will give away to the public. Onto these prosaic objects, he collages the imagery of war. Tool has invited the pubic to bring him imagery of violence, war, and trauma, as well as advertisements and ephemera of popular culture and news. Personal memorabilia from strangers and other veterans are turned into decals and used to decorate the surface of the vessels. Glazed with very typical ceramic colors — blue, brown, terra cotta — these cups seem ordinary, but when you look closely at them, the subject matter that emerges grabs at your heart. I asked Tool why he made cups and his answer was as eloquent as the work is powerful:
Peace is the only adequate war memorial. Everything else is at best a failure and usually something that glorifies war. I started making paintings and drawings and prints about the surreal experience of going to war and coming home and seeing your gas mask sold as a toy for children ‘ages 6 and up.’ Somehow, for me, the cup seems the appropriate scale to talk about war: hand-to-hand, person-to-person. Things get confused with scale. A cup is personal. Stalin said one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. I think a million war dead is an incalculable tragedy. Making cups is a pretty small gesture in the face of all that is going on around the world, but it is what I have. I don’t think anything I do will change the world, but nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.
In a separate area of the gallery, Shiffler and Hanasik have installed a show within the show: a separate but related project entitled The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes. Within a highly structured set of guidelines, the curators asked 90 artists (both veterans and non-veterans) to play the Exquisite Corpse game: Three artists each worked on a total of 30 drawings, each one illustrating a different part of the same human image. The critical point here is that each artist was tasked with drawing the body parts of a real person, someone dead or alive who had been in war. The results are visually beautiful, but once you understand the details of the game, a chill runs up your spine. They are literally exquisite corpses.
All in all, Not Alone is a very ambitious undertaking. I admire the curators’ commitment to an often overlooked segment of the Bay Area community, and in the midst of this incredibly divisive time, any attempt to bring disparate groups together in conversation is welcome. It helps that the level of discourse presented here is sophisticated, respectful, well-curated, and emotionally rich.
Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces continues at San Francisco Arts Commission War Memorial Veterans Building (401 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 126, Civic Center Historic District, San Francisco) through March 18.