Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Face to face with wars' impact on service personnel at the Hygienic

Hygienic Art Gallery
83 Bank St., P.O. Box 417, New London, (860) 443-8001
100 Faces of War Experience
Through Sept. 13, 2008

In one sense, the pictures hanging on the walls of the lower level of the Hygienic Art Gallery are banal. They depict men and women between their late teens and early 50s, some of them in military uniform. All are head and shoulders portraits. The early paintings were mostly based on photographs but these days artist Matt Mitchell meets with his subjects to talk and paint from life.

But the 100 Faces of War Experience is anything but banal. The individuals pictured are all veterans of the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars or have traveled to the theater of conflict. Each portrait is accompanied by a statement and information chosen by either the pictured individual or if deceased, by his or her family.

Mitchell undertook the project as a way to more deeply understand the impact of the wars and to make their human cost (at least to American service personnel) visible to a domestic audience. Begun in 2005, 22 portraits with statements have been completed so far. A work in progress, it will ultimately consist of 100 portraits and statements. The 100 Faces of War Experience is a not-for-profit project sponsored by the Veterans Education Project of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Many of the statements are poignant, colored by disillusion and loss. I found myself often reading the words, referencing the portrait and returning to the statement. Particularly evocative is the portrait of Rick Yarosh. The Army Specialist, Calvary [sic?] Scout and Bradley Gunner was traveling in a Bradley tank in 2006 when it was struck by an I.E.D. The tank's fuel cell ignited, engulfing the occupants in flames. One of Yarosh's fellow soldiers died within a week from his injuries. Yarosh himself suffered burns over 60 percent of his body. In his portrait he wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "ARMY" on the front. His face and arms are raw. The skin looks like it was applied with a putty knife. His statement concludes, "The day started the same as every other day, but that day has never ended."

The portrait to the left of Yarosh's is that of Tyler Boudreau, identified as a "General Contractor" from Newton, Massachusetts. Boudreau, as a Marine Captain, spent seven months in Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. His statement is titled "The Dangers of Introspection." Describing what he calls the "mission to troop ratio," Boudreau notes that to be an effective commander one must love both but "ultimately he must love the mission a little more." He must be prepared to sacrifice the lives of his men. But what if the ratio gets reversed? Boudreau writes, "From the disparity I witnessed between the policies in Washington and our actions in Iraq, an ambivalence formed inside me." He resigned his commission when he "realized my reverence for [his troops] had overwhelmed my reverence for the mission." Boudreau is pictured in civilian clothes: a plaid, button-down shirt with a pen in his breast pocket. His face is boyish, almost serene, but it is hard not to see a trace of world-weariness and disillusion in his demeanor.

There is no unanimity of opinion about these conflicts. Some of the veterans remain gung ho. Many express anger and a belief that their honorable service was abused by a "dishonorable" President. Throughout, Mitchell's project humanizes these people. While his brush captures their features, they are allowed to express themselves in their own voices.

The exhibit includes portraits and statements from several soldiers who did not survive the conflict—some being killed in action and at least one, Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a Marine Lance Corporal who took his own life upon return as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, Lucey was Mitchell's first subject. A letter that Lucey wrote home to his family from Iraq accompanies his portrait.

According to the press release for the show, the exhibit is being sponsored by the newly formed Wounds of War organization "as way to communicate the plight of returning veterans as they attempt to reintegrate into their lives back home." Wounds of War is a grassroots not-for-profit "formed by concerned citizens to help Connecticut Servicemen and Women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make the transition back into society."

Wounds of War Director Renee Rhodes says, "In America right now there is an awareness, through the media, of a 'mental health crisis.' There is a tsunami arriving on our shores of wounded men and women. These wounds are not typical mental health wounds but rather the effects of being in a highly stressful, and dangerous situation over an extended period of time."


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