A DIFFERENT WAR: VIETNAM IN ART
at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery
Northwestern University, Evanston
The works in “A Different War: Vietnam in Art” are full of anger and anguish. Of memories so powerful they come out unambiguously, in the simplest images. The complexity is in us–at least those of us for whom the war is some kind of marker–and each image ignites a line of memories.
John Olbrantz and Lucy Lippard organized this exhibit, which comprises 100 works by 54 artists, for the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington. It is the first exhibit to look at the effect of the war on American art. The works are divided into three main categories: protest art of the late 60s and early 70s; art by Vietnam vets; and recent art by nonveterans, including two Vietnamese refugees. The title of the exhibit comes from Tim O’Brien’s book Going After Cacciato: “Each soldier has a different war.” Each civilian does too.
Officially, the first American soldier died in Vietnam on July 8, 1959, the year Wally Hedrick, a veteran of the Korean war, painted his brutal, apocalyptic Anger/Madam Nhu’s Bar-B-Q. In the early years of the Vietnam war, few American artists chose the conflict as a subject, for the art world was split by debate about whether art had a role in politics, a quarrel Lippard details in her thorough catalog essay. But by the late 60s many works protested the horrors of the war. In 1967 Michele Oka Doner made a number of ceramic “death masks,” tortured but piercingly beautiful faces that seem to have found relief in death. Between 1966 and 1968 Nancy Spero did a series of watercolors on rice paper called “Bombs and Helicopters.” In one, detached heads streak toward a hovering helicopter, shrieking blood. In another, a screaming male head pilots a helicopter; below him flies the black silhouette of an eagle’s head, its beak cruelly sharp, its eyes invisible. The rage in these paintings is frightening, demonic. In fact, the shrillest art in this exhibit can be found among these earlier civilian protest works, from Peter Saul’s vitriolic Day-Glo Fantastic Justice (1968) to Leon Golub’s Vietnam I (1972), in which hard, slashing brush strokes portray brutally aggressive American soldiers on one side of the enormous canvas, and terrorized Vietnamese on the other.
Not that the work of the Vietnam veterans doesn’t rage. Theodore Gostas was a POW from 1968 until 1973, and his self-portrait Solitary Confinement: Insects Witness My Agony (1982) shows him caged, shackled, and bleeding, alone in a putrid yellow-ocher world except for five giant insects that stare at him. It is a bitter howl of anguish. But there is also a pensive, introspective side to the veterans’ work–their suffering is firsthand and complex. William Short, who was court-martialed after he refused to fight, is represented by a photo series he did between 1986 and 1988 on resisters in the military. Journalist Willa Seidenberg interviewed each of the soldiers, and excerpts from their stories accompany Short’s photographs. Most poignant are the words of the black soldiers describing the deep racism they quickly discovered in Vietnam. (Though blacks made up only 10.5 percent of the Army, they accounted for 21 percent of the casualties.) “I had to develop a racist attitude,” says one of the subjects, Greg Payton. “I never was raised with that.” Kim Jones’s Little Marine (1988) is a hanging sculpture of a body with heavy feet and calves, the thighs stretched taut and thin, the upper torso diminished to an unrecognizable tangle of twigs–all painted to resemble charred wood.
The photographs of Philip Jones Griffiths, a photojournalist in Vietnam from 1967 to 1971, are difficult to look at, for they capture the small tragedies of impersonal conflict–a little boy crying as he looks at the body of his dead sister; American soldiers walking through the bombed ruins of Saigon past a Vietnamese woman who balances on her shoulder huge bundles including pots, baskets, and a stove; an American soldier, feet and rifle propped against a window, oblivious to the ornately carved chair he’s sitting in and the naked doll lying on the floor below him. Rupert Garcia, who was stationed at a secret base in Thailand in the late 60s, uses vibrant pastels to limn the recurrence of war in his Fenixes (1984), named after the largely CIA-run Operation Phoenix, under which 20,000 alleged Vietcong sympathizers were killed each year. In one panel of the triptych a man burns–both Buddhist monk and soldier. In the second panel unidentifiable helicopters swarm in a dark blue sky, more menacing than any photograph. In the third, a shadowy man, his stance apparently taken from a photo of a Sandinista soldier, stands in a field of green–Vietnam and Central America.
The recent works by nonveterans can have a similar power, as anyone who has been to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., knows. Nancy Floyd’s 1986 memorial to her brother, who was killed in action in 1969, is a heartbreaking collection of objects–his diary, letters, goofy notes, Vietnam snapshots, and a copy of President Nixon’s condolence letter. Viewers can take with them a photocopy of the personal-property inventory that was sent to his father–a short, devastating list. The two Vietnamese refugee artists have also reconstructed their memories. In 1985 Hanh Thi Pham worked with Richard Turner to make photographs of staged scenes that contrast obvious American cultural symbols with unfathomable Vietnamese ones. In Chi Le’s The Butcher Shop (1984), vaguely human chunks of flesh hang over a blood-spattered counter, a scene modeled on an actual shop near her family’s home in Vietnam. “I thought back to that, and I thought of the war,” she states. “The meat of animals we eat looks exactly like the meat of people who blow up with bomb.”
Wendy Watriss brings memories of the war into the present with her series of somber black-and-white photographs (1980-83) chronicling the effects of Agent Orange. Daniel Salmon of San Antonio, a shrunken figure with an old man’s gnarled hands, stands in front of a photo of himself as he once was. Richard Sutton of Los Angeles holds on his lap his crippled daughter, who will never walk. There are also works that refer to recent events in Central America, such as Jerry Kearns’s El Norte (1987), a “portrait” of Oliver North set against the skulls of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. And Sue Coe’s War Train (1986) refers to the Vietnam vets who make up a huge percentage of the homeless in this country.
Perhaps it is a reflection of current American sensibilities that most of the art in this exhibit looks backward in time, and inward. When the Vietnam war ended for the American soldier, most Americans–including the civilians who protested loudest against the war–sank Southeast Asia, along with the veterans, deep in their memories. Unwilling or unable to accept their share of responsibility for the 58,000 Americans killed in the war and the many more traumatized by it, they couldn’t possibly acknowledge that at least 2,000,000 Vietnamese, 200,000 Cambodians, and 100,000 Lao also were killed, an estimated 75 percent of them civilians. And the American public still has enormous difficulty accepting more than token responsibility for the continuation of the conflict by other means–thousands of Vietnamese who fought against the communist takeover are still in reeducation camps; thousands more still die trying to escape in boats; hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian refugees wither in camps in Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong; and the Khmer Rouge, after years of tacit U.S. support, are now hacking their way back to power.
Yet this exhibit may be part of a growing willingness among Americans to rake through their memories, to face the pain in the hope of purging it. Michael Aschenbrenner’s 1982 sculpture Damaged Bone Series: Chronicles 1968 is one of the subtlest, most moving works in this exhibit. On a section of wall, 24 segments of glass leg bones and joints are hung together, though without touching (Aschenbrenner’s leg was badly injured in a parachute jump during the Tet offensive in 1968). Some of the glass bone fragments are softly colored, pastel green and blue, and some are hard, black and red. Others are clear. The ends are snapped off sharp and so they glisten, but most of the surfaces have been scoured to roughen and soften them. Every segment of bone is twisted, bent, or deformed in some way–but every one is also splinted with small branches or held tight by a wire and turnbuckle. All are gently bound by tape or by cloth and string. Such bones will heal, though the body will limp.