Strange Fruit

Art plucked from war at the Morgan Conservatory

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 War as Art/Art as War, an exhibit of drawn and printed images on gray or tan pulp paper currently at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory, is an attempt to re-sensitize viewers to the daily terror and arduous realities of war.  The Bush administration did what it could to keep images of death and dismemberment off America's TV screens. This show, organized by the Vermont-based Combat Papers (an outgrowth of the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, founded in Chicago in 2004), makes a vivid contribution to the business of bringing the personal experiences of soldiers home.

For War as Art, Combat Papers pulped the pale sand-and-shadow-colored uniforms worn by American troops in Iraq. It's a way of recycling trauma: Images of battle, of a world of weapons and heat and pain, are ingrained in the rough surface of the fibrous paper at a deeper level than mere imagery. These are the indelible stains of violent decisions made, too often in bad faith, by powerful men and women.

The show — assembled by Chicago curator and book artist William Drendel — consists primarily of prints, paintings and drawings on paper by artist-veterans of Iraq and other American wars. But it also includes books and prints by the Mexican-born, West Coast-based artists Enrique Chagoya and Artemio Rodriguez, whose harshly satirical accounts of civilization's abuses and contradictions earn each a place among the more powerful artists of our time.

Chagoya's updates of Francesco Goya's Napoleonic-era anti-war prints and Rodriguez's five-panel, Mayan-like woodcut frieze of armed American troops are among many works here that some museum should snap up. The show also includes large-scale, quasi-comic wooden sculptures of a tank and an anti-aircraft gun made by Chicago artist Michael T. Rea, and "Army of One," a long, colorful quilt stitched together from secondhand comforters and U.S. military uniforms by Cheryl Pope, also of Chicago. One large wall displays a screenprint in nine large sections of a stealth aircraft by Buffalo-based printmaker Peter Sowiski. John Risseeuw's letterpress prints using polymer relief and woodcut include one titled "Strange Fruit" (after Billie Holiday's wrenching song about lynchings in the American South), made after a trip to Cambodia to aid victims of landmines in 2002.

Morgan Conservatory's primary mission is making paper — a dirty business involving a stench that rises from the Hollander paper-beating machines as they churn and dissolve raw materials. Located on a side street off Payne Avenue, it occupies a refurbished small manufacturing shop. Outside in the back, mulberry trees will soon provide bark for the kind of paper that Japanese Zen masters use to evoke the ground of ultimate being. As a "green" episode in a hardscrabble inner-city neighborhood that's being slowly reclaimed, a more appropriate site for Combat Papers' art of emotional reclamation would be hard to find. 

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