The Combat Paper Project at NCCC
by J. Tim Raymond
The Fabric of War
It’s not that far really, so I drove to Niagara County Community College with Kathleen Sherin, printmaker, director, and gallery curator there. Members together at Hallwalls in the early 1990s, we served on an arts advisory committee that reviewed slides of work by fellow artists and networked old school, exchanging names and phone numbers.
At the NCCC gallery, more than 75 handmade paper images lay on the floor waiting to be installed: The Fabric of War, an exhibit of works on paper and mixed media produced as part of the Combat Paper Project.
In this case the medium is the message, and a very personal one: Veterans past and recent have assembled memories from disassembled uniforms cut into shreds, mulched into fiber, and mixed with pulp to make paper, which is worked in various ways by the artists/veterans. In workshops developed over the last three years by the Green Door Studio in Burlington, Vermont, veterans, civilians, and family members have created art that seeks to broaden the narrative surrounding conflict, militarism, and reconciliation. The project has grown to encompass the lineage and uniforms from every conflict waged by the US since World War Two.
The pieces vary in size from greeting card to poster to large, heavy impastos that need clamping hardware instead of the little magnet system used to hang most of the show. Text panels describe the philosophy of the project and explain the ancient art of papermaking going back to the Mongols, who brought the process to the people they subjugated people, spreading the art form by conquest throughout the known world. If war is the currency of the global economy, then these artworks are in a way the collective receipt for services rendered in pursuit of United States foreign policy objectives over the last 60 years.
It’s curious how printmaking on a rough, deckle-edged paper surface—where the ink is one thing, and the chosen surface is another—makes me want to see deeper into an image. It’s like the feeling I get from street art: The context (surface) and the content (image) are more graphically connected in a raw ad hoc way, almost intentionally furtive, aping spontaneity. Depending on text, juxtaposition, scale, and contrast, an image can be remarkably compelling or just passably mundane.
Back in the 1960s, when Vietnam was still barely registering in protest songs, no trip up from DC to New York City was complete without stopping on St. Mark’s Place to pick out the latest “button.” Of course, these didn’t button anything:They were images or text printed on a disk with a pin on the back, to be fastened to a hat or shirt front. Buttons were the first graphically invasive anti-war presence in the public arena: “Is Your Boy In This Box?”with a flag draped coffin; “War Is Good Business, Invest Your Son”; and the ubiquitous peace symbol, a graphic interpretation of the semaphore flag signals signing “C-N-D”—for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—commissioned by the British anti-war movement in 1955.
Buttons were generative of the same sentiments on public display today in the quick and dirty work of Banksy and the salon-quality work of Shepard Fairey. They delivered not only a message but an authentic, public means of prodding people to change their perspectives. Graphic works are best when simplest—picture and text, the less the more effective. The impact may be strongest in abstract manipulations of the material itself, such as paper pulp paintings that play to the palpabilty of the process, and impasto encrustations that call to mind intimations of violence, the leitmotif of war. There are works in the NCCC exhibit devoted to anonymous fears and anxieties, communicated in phrases repeated mantra-like: “stolen threads of youth,” “in god we trust,” and “psychological armor.” There are iconic images in Warholian repetition: helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, infantry, silhouettes of winged monuments, canted images, cropped, distressed, all emphatically inviting touch, witness.
Perhaps most telling are the handmade poetry books. Bound with archival precision, these missives of combat soldiers are stirring emotional recollections. “I Hackysacked in Iraq” by Nathan Lewis gave a veteran cold chills in his own recollection of the ennui, ignominy, and insidious calumny of a combat zone. As Drew Cameron, co-founder of the Combat Paper Project, says, “[This art process] helps us forget the violation we feel and the tremors that keep us distant and numb.”
A lyric from Hair—“Folding the flag is putting it to bed for the night”—rings faintly as I ponder scraps of the red, white, and blue and what they mean now, strewn about like the floor litter at a garment factory. The strictures placed on the use of the flag in imagery once were so controversial that twice the issue nearly caused an amendment to the Constitution.
A frequently rendered image is Saddam Hussein, the mustachioed strongman of Iraq. Osama Bin Laden is a no-show, as if nobody believes in him as a corporeal being but only as the consummate corporate bogeyman. Does it even matter if his voice is authenticated anymore?
—j. tim raymondblog comments powered by Disqus
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