Art review: War at a distance

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2007 - 5:39 PM

Four Minnesota artists offer meditations on current conflicts and distant battles.

After five years, the war in Iraq and the holding action in Afghanistan have become background noise for many Americans, unless their lives or the lives of those they love are engaged in the fight. Still, the persistence of war nags at our minds, worries our consciences and shadows our decisions about issues big and small -- everything from who to vote for to what channel to watch.

Artists, too, fret about the conundrums posed by seemingly endless war. Is it the basic human condition, does it advance anything, what does it mean, why do we do it? Moved by some intractable need to somehow address the issues, four Minnesota artists have produced war-themed photos, drawings and paintings featured in two complementary shows at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Thoughtful and skillfully executed, their images offer a peculiarly tranquil meditation on war. They depict the strangely banal and familiar settings in which wars happen, but not the thing itself -- no explosions or fire, no severed limbs or shattered bodies. There are men in camouflage and coffins, wandering refugees, sleepy sentries and sunny days. But no dramatic encounters with enemy agents or alien foes. Instead, the actors in these denatured dramas seem always to be gazing into a void, confronting not some mortal peril, but nothingness.

What the artists intend is unclear. Perhaps the psychological silence is a reflection of how distant most of us are from the action, how little we know of horror. Nevertheless, the alienation in the images is haunting. Organized by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run department at the museum, the shows are up through Oct. 28.

Doughy American war-reenactors plodding about suburban back yards and regional parks in cast-off World War II uniforms are pretty bizarre, and Justin Newhall has perfectly captured their earnest oddity in his large color "Axis & Allies" photos. Some take the role of Russians in jodhpurs, others draw the Nazi straw. Everyone looks grim, clueless or lost -- even when they're patrolling split-level subdivisions. Haven't these people got lives?

Camille Gage's photos of flag-wrapped military caskets containing dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are based on U.S. government images, the only ones permitted. She has blacked out backgrounds to highlight the coffins, apparently intending her censorship as a criticism of the official variety, but the images are strangely flat.

In her sketches of soldiers on patrol and of milling refugees, Megan Vossler renders the figures as tiny forms on huge sheets of white paper. The effect diminishes their significance while magnifying their anonymity.

Megan Rye's huge paintings of scenes from Iraq are the most effective in conveying something of the tensions and bewilderment that U.S. soldiers must experience on patrol there. Most are based on snapshots taken by her brother Ryan, a Marine who served in Fallujah and the Sunni Triangle for seven months in 2004 and '05. Here again, the glare of desert sun bleaches out vistas, isolates objects, silhouettes soldiers' heads. Beautifully designed and artfully executed, the scenes have a compelling grace that belies the gritty reality of their war-zone origins.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

  • WAR MEDIATED/ I WILL FOLLOW YOU INTO THE DARK

    What: Photos, paintings and drawings on war themes by four Minnesota artists: Megan Vossler, Justin Newhall, Camille Gage and Megan Rye.

    When: Through Oct. 28.

    Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Av. S.

    Review: All four artists offer strangely tranquil and emotionless war-themed images that oddly reiterate our psychological distance from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Tickets: Free. 612-870-3131 or www.artsmia.org.

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