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The enduring attempt to come to grips with war

Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2008

Trauma can prompt storytelling. Some who experience trauma or loss tell their stories again and again until they begin to make sense. "War Stories," the small, nuanced exhibit at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, buzzes with dozens of stories about the war in Iraq, each carving out its nook of understanding.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, which was organized by Lisa Tung, MassArt's director of curatorial programs and professional galleries, is the powerful installation "9 Scripts from a Nation at War." It approaches war narratives from several angles. The artist team of David Thorne, Katya Sander, Ashley Hunt, Sharon Hayes, and Andrea Geyer presents video viewing stations, like study carrels in a library, each with a different video and a different "script" from the war. Some are read by performers, while others come straight from the mouths of the authors - a BBC reporter, or a soldier making a speech about her experience in Iraq.

Edited down, these texts might have made powerful theater. But the artists don't edit; one video, a reenactment of a tribunal investigating a detainee for war crimes, is more than four hours long. In this piece, the performers regularly stand and move to the next chair, then become the next character; ultimately, the actor playing the inquisitor plays the accused. It's like sand shifting beneath the viewer's feet. We want a story that will make sense of the war; Thorne, Sander, Hunt, Hayes, and Geyer refuse to make it that easy for us.

The other two bodies of work here are a little easier, in that way - they do see victims and aggressors. For Nina Berman, the victims are wounded and traumatized veterans. Her heart-rending color photographs, most coupled with text from interviews with her subjects, draw a vivid picture of the damage war wreaks on young soldiers. One image without text is especially harrowing. "Marine Wedding" has the groom, in dress uniform, his face a map of hell. He has lost his ears, his nostrils, his hair. His perfect bride stands beside him, grim and forlorn.

Jenny Holzer's "Redaction Paintings" take declassified US government documents and turn them into art objects. The silkscreened painting "001996 (Light Purple Black)" shows mug shots taken of accused soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. The photos have been photocopied many times over; they appear here as grainy silhouettes. The soldiers wear hats, and the dark images eerily recall the pictures of the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Each of these works sheds a little light on the complicated story of the Iraq war. It's the best artists can do in wartime. It helps.

Soldiering on
Photojournalists have a different imperative than artists do: to capture a moment that tells a story and convey it quickly. The speed has gotten faster since the earliest war photographers documented the Crimean War in the 1850s. Robert Klein Gallery presents a wide and sobering array of war photos in "Shooting War: From Crimea to Vietnam."

The exhibit also traces the history of photography. Those photos of the Crimean War, such as that of a Turkish encampment, were made with glass plate negatives and rolled with collodion emulsion out on the field. In some cases, the photographer is unknown. During World War I, postcards were made of war images, such as the dramatic plummet in "German Bombers Diving" (1916). Joe Rosenthal's print "Old Glory Goes up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, 1945" is choppy because it was transmitted by sound waves, not over a wire.

The images from 20th-century wars are more action-packed and immediate than those from the 19th century. In "The Price of War" (1953), a medic tends four wounded soldiers in the back of a jeep. This and other images in "Shooting War" are small prints, little jewels packed with pathos.

A bold approach
Louis Schanker, a dynamic printmaker of the 1930s and 1940s, has a show of prints and paintings up at Mercury Gallery. His style varied from Cubist abstraction to lovely little street scenes. The painting "Banjo Player" (1931) looks like a tamer version of Picasso's "Guitar" (1913), with the musician's body fracturing and flattening around the instrument.

Schanker was primarily a woodcut printer; the most engaging paintings here have the look of a woodcut print, with bold, dark lines and aggressive shapes - such as "Theater Box" (1933), in which block-headed audience members bathe in patches of color, as if seated in sun shining through stained glass.

Those patches of color became Schanker's trademark. They appear in prints as well, such as the woodcut "Football" (1940). Frenetic black lines convey athletes tackling and jumping against panes of blue, mauve, and orange that evoke, as much as the figures do, action and movement. The other works are skilled - his Parisian street scenes are sweet - but it's images like this, with lines colliding and passages of color shifting, in which he found his vision.

War Stories

At: Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through March 12. 617-879-7333, massart.edu/calendar

Shooting War: From Crimea to Vietnam

At: Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through March 22. 617-267-7997, robertkleingallery.com

Louis Schanker

At: Mercury Gallery, 8 Newbury St., through March 4. 617-859-0054, mercurygallery.com

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