facetoface

Columns at museum's entrance

When War Hits Home

Taína Caragol
April 7, 2017
Painting of a soldier running away from an explosion in an American military uniform
John / Vincent Valdez / 2010-2012 / Courtesy of the Artist and the David Shelton Gallery / © Vincent Valdez

In the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11-Present, photography, painting, drawing, and video bring us face-to-face with those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show features the work of Ashley Gilbertson, Louie Palu, Stacy L. Pearsall, Emily Prince, Vincent Valdez and the late Tim Hetherington, who invite us to consider the effects of these prolonged and distant conflicts on the soldiers, their loved ones, and on American society.

As a co-curator, I worked with Vincent Valdez. Over almost two decades, Valdez’s work has taken the form of seductively detailed, often larger-than-life oil on canvas paintings and pastel drawings populated mainly by male figures rendered in a realist manner. Frequently his art explores the idea of masculinity and the struggles that young men face in society, from the trappings of traditional gender roles to historic legacies of oppression that live on in racial and ethnic profiling. Valdez’s body of work in The Face of Battle is perhaps his most intimate take on male identity.

Already as a child Valdez was fascinated with the tales of war by his grandfather and father, a World War II and Vietnam veteran respectively. Valdez would reproduce the imagery of warfare on TV, in history and comic books in his own drawings. In 2009, while working on a series of artworks on warfare through the ages, Valdez asked his lifelong friend, 2nd LT. John Holt, Jr. to sit for a portrait. Valdez was interested in war as an enduring phenomenon, but also in the “Unknown Soldier” as a masculine archetype of heroic sacrifice and unidentified casualty of war. 

After Holt’s return from his first tour in Iraq, Valdez met with him to work on the portrait. Months later, at home, and before his second tour to Afghanistan, Holt lost his battle against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through his suicide Holt came to embody the Unknown Soldier for Valdez. He had known that soldier and felt his loss.

Valdez finished the portrait John posthumously in 2012. It depicts his friend in the midst of battle, an explosion and billowing smoke behind him, his eyes focused on an ominous sight that is invisible to the viewer and that anticipates John’s demise. In the gallery Valdez occupies, Holt’s death is evoked in Black Flag, a folded flag painstakingly drawn in black lithographic crayon, and through several paintings from the series Excerpts for John picturing moments of his military burial. These are minimal paintings of simple black lines that seem to disappear into gray backgrounds like fading memories.

On the central wall, in the single-channel video Home, Valdez pays homage and bids farewell to his friend. The life-size projection shows Holt’s coffin draped in an American flag, floating through his native San Antonio to the soundtrack of the anti-war song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” sung by the Celtic punk band The Pogues. On its last tour through the city, his coffin passes by houses with quirky ornamentation, a graffiti for the Spurs basketball team, a taco joint with missing letters in its name, the Azteca Meat Market – presumably places the friends frequented together, in their Tejano city… The cut-and-paste aesthetic of the hovering casket is deliberate; it imitates the form and slow motion of the Chicano lowrider, a familiar and beloved icon of the neighborhood in which the friends were raised. At the end of the video John’s coffin arrives in front of his house, the song dissipates and gives way to the distinctive sound of a train horn in the distance.

Comments

I'm an artist and veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times (and will be embedding with a Marine Expeditionary Unit this summer), and as a combat artist extensively witnessed the 'Face of Battle' up close and personal, and I've rendered it in watercolors, drawings, paintings and sculpture. I've also spent time creating, along with other members of the Society of Illustrators, a body of artwork called "The Joe Bonham Project", which is the result of devoting intimate time to and collaborating with traumatically wounded soldiers and Marines. While interesting, this exhibit is myopic, and seemingly more interested in politicizing the faces and experiences of combat veterans and being hip, rather than actually presenting a balanced presentation by including those working in traditional portraiture from direct experience of veterans, both in combat and in shock trauma wards here at home. While digital photography is compelling in its own unique way, the aesthetic of direct experience flowing from the slowed vision of analog art speaks with an equally powerful and authentic voice, a voice not represented, or even hinted at in this show. The face of battle is far more extensive and complex than this show exhibits, which in the end does a dis-service to the general American art public as it attempts through art to grasp and process the experiences of its warriors over the last decade and a half.

I'm an artist and veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times (and will be embedding with a Marine Expeditionary Unit this summer), and as a combat artist extensively witnessed the 'Face of Battle' up close and personal, and I've rendered it in watercolors, drawings, paintings and sculpture. I've also spent time creating, along with other members of the Society of Illustrators, a body of artwork called "The Joe Bonham Project", which is the result of devoting intimate time to and collaborating with traumatically wounded soldiers and Marines. While interesting, this exhibit is myopic, and seemingly more interested in politicizing the faces and experiences of combat veterans and being hip, rather than actually presenting a balanced presentation by including those working in traditional portraiture from direct experience of veterans, both in combat and in shock trauma wards here at home. While digital photography is compelling in its own unique way, the aesthetic of direct experience flowing from the slowed vision of analog art speaks with an equally powerful and authentic voice, a voice not represented, or even hinted at in this show. The face of battle is far more extensive and complex than this show exhibits, which in the end does a dis-service to the general American art public as it attempts through art to grasp and process the experiences of its warriors over the last decade and a half. Artists like Victor Juhasz, Richard Johnson and Steve Mumford should have been included.

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