Sunday, April 5, 2015

One Hundred Faces of War

No Statement

One Hundred Faces of War, at the National Veterans Art Museum, through May 1


As it speaks to both national and personal destinies, this exhibit of 100 portraits at the National Veterans Museum makes most  postmodern art seem frivolous.   Lives change,  nations change, and this exhibit seems to have put its finger on the pulse of both kinds of transformation as America enters the fourth century of its experiment as a non-sectarian, democratic,   nation state. It shares the solemnity of the permanent exhibit at the Elks National Veterans Memorial – but there’s less bluster and  more honesty.  There’s more reason to be sad, because you’re connected to  actual  people who were killed ,  injured, or transformed.   But there’s also  more reason to be hopeful, because you meet people who  stood up for our country, right or wrong, and now are moving on with their lives.


It was an ambitious project.  One hundred life –size , waist-up portraits, accompanied by un-edited testimonials “about themselves and their experience of war.”  The flat, brownish,  monochrome backgrounds create the ambience of a military facility, and the straight-ahead, waist-up, poses of the veterans feel like soldiers rising up and  dutifully responding to a summons.  They all feel quite alive and present, except for the dead ones whose posthumous portraits depict them as distant and other-worldly.

You can’t really expect any artist, even Rembrandt, to paint 100 portraits in nine years and make them all masterpieces.  This artist, Matt Mitchell,  was apparently attracted to young women, as he usually paints them cute and flirtatious.   But otherwise, the identity of the artist recedes behind the profundity of the subject matter, and how often does that ever happen? Since exhibition material does not identify Mitchell himself as a military veteran, he probably is not, so this exhibit might  fall outside the mission of the N.V.A.M. to " exhibit art inspired by combat and created by veterans." But an outsiders point of view is not necessarily any less valuable.

Sometimes the unique,  enormous task that Mitchell gave himself seems too much for him to bear.
Some pieces feel like awkward pastiches of generic faces and torsos, begun separately and never joined well together.  But at least ten of them are real masterpieces of character expression in sharply, economically executed oil painting. 

The testimonials may disappoint those who are critical of American military  culture and the  Middle-Eastern wars it is still fighting.  Some of the veterans are still on active duty or serving in a civilian, supportive role.  They can’t really be expected to threaten their careers.  Others are  obviously far more concerned about putting their new lives together than with debating foreign policy.  But if you read between the lines, they all seem to be defensively answering the question:  “why the hell did you enlist?”.  And one of the most compelling portrait/testimory combinations of all is the young, troubled looking security guard who had “No Statement”.