LOS ANGELES — Perhaps no other kitchenware is as overlooked and underappreciated as the cup. Every day we slake our thirst by absent-mindedly grabbing a random mug, filling it, then gulping away until we’re satisfied.
In his first solo exhibition, Ehren Tool: Production or Destruction, ceramist and former US Marine, Ehren Tool, is exhibiting a thousand uniquely crafted cups decorated with ceramic decals of soldiers’ photos, propaganda and sculptural reliefs shaped like medals and bombs. Glazed in varying colors — watery reds, moss greens, grays, murky blues — the cups line the walls of the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s second floor gallery like soldiers standing at attention, a little rough around the edges.
When we visited, most cups stood whole and upright, but every so often, a deep red gash on an anonymous cup would grab our attention. As our eyes breezed past rows and rows of painstakingly detailed works, our gaze stopped short the occasional lone, deflated cup that struggled to stand. A little heartbreak hides there.
These ceramic cups are Tool’s weapon of choice for talking about war. “Nobody expects cups to do that. They almost have no cultural weight,” says Tool, a big, burly man who dominated the space. “I think it’s also the appropriate scale to talk about war.” Tool has made about 14,000 cups since he began, and given away 12,300. At a time when Stalin’s words — “one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic” — ring as true as ever, the cups bring war back to a devastatingly intimate scale.
What could easily become cliché becomes poignant in Tool’s hands, largely because he has been through war and was changed by it. For many of us, violence is an obscure concept, brought to life only in movies or video games. Tool’s work shows it to be much more painful and personal than that.
Tool imbues each of his cups with layered imagery using molds and photos lent to the artist. In one, he molded a friend’s purple heart. In another, images of rambunctious healthy Marines appear in sepia. Propaganda and symbolism jockey for space. After a while, we stop looking at the cups as just another commodity. We blink and belatedly realize that this is someone’s story we hold in our hands.
Unlike other exhibitions where the medium changes from one piece to another, Ehren Tool: Production or Destruction steadfastly gravitates around the cup. On the floor, “393” is a grid of somber, black cups — some chipped, some pulverized — representing each US combat death in the first year of the second Gulf War. On the far wall, a video shows ceramic cups being shot and flying into millions of pieces.
Violent, yes. Gritty? Far from it. Rather than convincing us of the horrors of war through gruesome images, Tool approaches from the side of beauty and delicacy. Granted, Tool’s emphasis is intensely personal and skewed toward the US soldier’s experience, but if the point is to begin a conversation, he has succeeded. Each cup is meant to last 500,000 to 1 million years; in that time, Tool hopes his cups will spark more contemplation and less altercation. As he says, ”Nothing I do will change the world, but that doesn’t release me from the obligation to try.”
Ehren Tool: Production or Destruction is on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (5814 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) until September 9.