War, Art & the Veteran at MAM
The opening of “War, Art, & the Veteran,” was Oct. 22, and when I stepped into the Schroeder Galleria on the west side of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the tech staff was busy attaching informational text. I sat down next to a grizzled chap wearing a Korean War Vet cap. During our brief conversation, I remarked that it looked like folks were walking past the artworks and not actually stopping to look at them. The chap in the cap said, “Oh, war is an anathema to most people. They don’t want to know what it’s about.”
Myself included. Having had two brothers who served in two wars — Korea and Viet Nam — plus, a father who served for four years during WWII, I’m not up for reviewing such bloody, awful truth-telling.
But, I did. And I’m glad, though, let’s not call this a “review.” A hard-as-nails art critic would approach it with a steely eye. But knowing that the work came from the heart and hands of war veterans is enough for me. That said, most of the work is first class, and I find myself comparing some of the grisly paintings to those of the German Expressionists. Here and there are renderings not unlike Chagall’s swoops of paint or De Kooning’s luscious meanderings. A ghastly oil painting, Waiting for Henry Kissinger, depicts a uniformed skeleton slumped in a jungle terrain waiting for the Kissinger who never came. Medic, an acrylic on canvas, chronicles the peoples of Afghanistan huddled together, apparently waiting for, or about to meet with, a medic. Checkpoint drives home the point of hell around every bend. Marching down the far west edge of the long, narrow galleria are several sculptures, most notably one depicting an elongated (and obviously tortured) metal figure reaching upward.
To more closely reflect the contributions by veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, located in Chicago where the show originated, will soon change to become the “National Veterans Art Museum, founded by Vietnam Veterans.” That’s a depressing mouthful, but if history teaches us anything, it’s that the list of conflicts will grow ever longer. Perhaps, someday in the not-too-distant future, we won’t have a museum large enough to display the work of combat veterans.
At the end of the tour, I paused to study the exquisite pencil drawings of Michael G. Reagan; they were portraits of five Wisconsin men who died in combat. Their faces were young and filled with hope. They could be college graduation images, but they’re not. The men in these drawings will never grow old.
As I exit the galleria, the ghosts of who they might have been follow me into the rainy afternoon. A group of school children race to a waiting bus. Traffic slams north on Lincoln Memorial Drive. The men in the drawings….
War, Art, & the Veteran
Through Nov. 15
Milwaukee Art Museum
Walter Schroeder Foundation Galleria
700 N. Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee
Open Tuesdays – Sundays, 10 am – 5 pm
Open Thursdays until 8 pm
Closed on Mondays