Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Artist's Statement

Here's the "Artist's Statement" from my current exhibition "Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq"

When I tell someone I'm a combat artist for the United States Marine Corps three questions are invariably put to me. First, what is a combat artist? Second, what does combat have to do with art? And finally, why would the Marines Corps, of all organizations, have artists? The first question is usually asked with great curiosity, while the final question is often posed with a tone of incredulity. The answer to the first question is simple. A combat artist is an artist who goes to combat. This is no more and no less than a landscape artist going outdoors to find the visual and experiential content for their work.

The response to the second query involves a short art history lesson. Art and combat have been wedded since time immemorial. Whether it's a 5,000 year old pictograph painted onto a cave wall in Montana depicting a primitive spear brandishing warrior, the evocative 3rd century B.C. Greek statue entitled "The Dying Gaul", or Dutch master Rembrandt's painting "Nightwatch", we are talking about combat art. There is a reality and immediacy in each of these pieces that speaks of the individual artist's direct experience of war and warriors.

Many other well-known figures in art history have chosen to render images of war drawn from their personal experiences. Goya produced a dramatic set of etchings based on the horrors inflicted during Napoleon's occupation of Spain. Winslow Homer followed a Union sniper out into the field and his resulting image, "The Sharpshooter", is one of the most indelible images of the American Civil War. Egon Schiele sketched sickly Russian POWs with great compassion while serving in the Austrian Army during World War I. During that same war, John Singer Sargent painted the seemingly endless lines of gassed British soldiers. All of these body of works qualify as combat art, and at the same time they are each universally recognized as essential elements in the critical understanding of Western Art as a whole.

The third question, the one often posed with a raised eyebrow, is the most challenging to answer. The martial reputation and public perception of the Marine Corps is a powerful one, and in most of our minds heavily weighted in a direction away from anything remotely associated with art and culture. I recognize this stereotype is difficult to surmount. Admittedly, we Marines are often the culprits in perpetuating the popular myth of the gruff anti-intellectual warrior. But in truth, the Marine Corps at its center is concerned with excellence and the values that inform a free and open democratic society. In a free society art can exist "per se", for its own sake, with no other justification than to bear witness to the truth of the individual artist. In a military organization, which in many ways is a distinctly undemocratic and closed culture, the challenge to keep democratic values and attitudes alive in critical. Many nations have succumbed to internal coups because their military lost sight of the very thing they were tasked with defending in the first place.

One of the many ways the Marine Corps nurtures its devotion to the core values of our American republic is through its Combat Art Program; a program that cultivates art for its own sake. Marine artists are sent into harm's way with one basic order, do art. This official directive has no subject matter, medium or quantity attached. The Marine Corps simply makes it possible for the combat artist to create from one of the most elemental visual sources, people and places in time of war. We Marines who have been honored with the opportunity to be combat artists are absolutely free to follow our own creative instincts. Three well known practicing civilian artists who have emerged from this tradition are Howard Terpning, Harry Jackson and Henry Casselli. The Marine Corps' 7,500 plus collection of combat art stands in eloquent testimony to this vision, and is a credit to not just the Marines, but to America itself.

My own artistic impulse is a naturalistic one; to render as close as possible the reality of what is before me in the context of my own experience. As a beneficiary of the creative sensibilities championed by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth, I see a central goal of art in the elimination of stereotype. My art articulates what is true and real about the actual experience of war and warriors. My intent, especially in view of current events, is to give people another insight into this unfolding drama called the War on Terrorism.

It is also my hope that my work, though grounded in realism, is more poetry than prose, and more art than journalism. I do not want my presence in these pieces to be distilled away. I was there, in the heat, watchful and tense at the beginning of a dawn raid, surrounded by children at the edge of a soccer field littered with live mortar rounds, and bouncing down an Afghan highway pocked with shell holes and bordered by minefields. I have looked into the weary campfire lit faces of my fellow Marines in unnamed places and felt time suspend itself, and in that moment found myself wondering who's faces are these; Union soldiers before Fredericksburg? Roman legionnaires during the 4th watch of the night? Or, Greek hoplites facing Troy?

It has often been my field experience, while doing a sketch or a watercolor amid my fellow Marines, that my mere presence doing art has a positive impact, even during the most trying circumstances. This consequence was something I simple had never anticipated, and it has made me acutely aware of the humanizing effect doing art can have in the midst of war, one of the most de-humanizing of experiences.

The title of this exhibition is "Fire and Ice". Although this is the title for one of the works in the show, it actually refers, at a deeper level, to my personal experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are experiences of extremes; from the numbing cold of Kandahar in January, to the searing 130 plus degree heat of Babylon in late June; from the deep and engaging hospitality of individual Iraqis, to the unpredictable and faceless violence of roadside bombs; from the relative comfort of base camps to inhospitable desert nights spent sleeping on a ground teeming with black scorpions and camel spiders. The list could go on and on.

When I titled the piece "Fire and Ice" I was also conscious of Robert Frost's poem of the same name. A poem that muses somewhat darkly on the two extreme possiblities of the world's end, in fire or in ice.

9 comments:

V. Schroeder said...

Thanks for giving this analysis of your art and what you do. You are doing a remarkable thing and it helps all of us to understand it better.

SK said...

Thank you so much for sharing your work and your experiences. Both your drawings and your writings are exceptional.

Holly - A Soldiers' Angel said...

Oh man, you have the greatest job! I'd be interested in hearing how you came to be a combat artist.

Love your work and your writing!
~Holly

-[Medic]- said...

Hey, first stop by, and I will make sure to return. Awesome artwork, and as Holly said before me, you have the greatest job. Serving your country and recording it as art, amazing. I hope to see more and I will be back for sure.

Mike K said...

You are a godsend, the best argument against nihilstic little twerps like Anthony Swofford and his ilk.

As an amateur artist I recognize quality and your work could well become iconic in the future, a visual testimony to the warrior class.

Semper Fi

Beth* A. said...

Ditto what Holly said - all of it. How DO you become a combat artist; is there more than one?

Lee said...

"After looking at the Robert Frost poem "Fire And Ice" I finally understood the concept that he had in mind. What I understood from the poem was that the world was coming to an end because of emotions of hatred. He was saying that no matter how it ended there would still be hatred. After spending several hours trying to figure out this poem I came . . ." [please click HERE to read the rest of this comment]

anonymous said...

koole broke my heart a long time ago. 10,000 miles away i wonder if he has found purpose in his life.

Paolo said...

Hi, another combat artist from XIX century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Fattori
Kind regards
Paolo