Sorrows of War
At Memphis College of Art, 1930 Poplar in Overton Park, through Sunday
Perhaps it indicates the high level of artistic activity in Memphis that worthwhile exhibitions sometimes don’t receive the attention they deserve. That’s the case with “The Sorrows of War,” a show at Memphis College of Art’s Rust Hall, at the Overton Park campus, that closes Sunday. By all means, sometime during the next three days, make an effort to see this profoundly beautiful, technically accomplished and morally disturbing exhibition.
Where is the art, the music, the poetry protesting against the war in Iraq? Those with long memories will recall that the Vietnam War produced a huge outpouring of protest material in many forms and mediums, so much so that by the late 1960s the anti-war stance had become almost an industry. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, seem to register far below natural disasters, gun violence at schools and malls, and the latest shenanigans of Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashian sisters in the national consciousness. As exhausting as the first decade of the 21st century was, however, we mustn’t cease paying attention, as the five artists in “The Sorrows of War” remind us.
Organized by Jennifer Sargent, MCA’s former exhibitions coordinator, “The Sorrows of War” is expertly displayed for immediate impact. Colors are somber; arrangement is appropriately regimented. For most of the pieces, really more installations of works in large series, the approach is suggestive and provocative. The exception is Susan Hagen’s “The Lost Army,” a group of soldiers, each about 12 inches tall, made of carved and charred linden wood, displayed at various levels on cloth-covered stands. With their deep black surfaces and their different stances of seeming unease and uncertainty, this little army does indeed look lost.
A far divergent method is employed by Barb Hunt in “Fodder,” a title that’s surely a reference to the old notion that the infantry is cannon fodder thrown into the line of artillery fire. The artist took countless used military fatigues, ripped them apart to leave only the seams and hung them on a broad wall in two rows. The implication of very real yet anonymous waste, both of material and men, is overwhelming. Overwhelming too is Vita Plume’s “Fallen Soldiers,” which fills two walls with little tapestries depicting the eyes of dead American and Canadian military from the war in Afghanistan.
Another complex series is Aaron Hughes’ “Dust Memories,” an extensive grouping of works on paper — collage, pen and ink, charcoal, watercolor and transfer — that assert in a fashion that is both realistic and dreamlike, detailed and abstract, the artists’ memories of his “ambiguous and anxious” service in Iraq.
Finally, also in the works on paper category but categorically the opposite in scope and scale are four giant virtuoso woodblock prints by Sandow Birk, who must surely be considered the Jimi Hendrix of the process. Inspired by “The Miseries of War,” a series of engravings by Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Birk’s 15-piece “The Depravities of War,” of which these four examples are a part, translates the grave iniquities and disasters of war and their outcomes to our time, mingling past and present in an unfortunate and seemingly insurmountable cycle.