06 June 2014

On Surrealism: Fishing for Bombs in Minnesota

An exhibit of paintings, sculptures, and other artwork by nine U.S. military veterans, titled "Surrealism and War," recently opened at the National Veterans Art Museum (N.V.A.M.), Chicago. The event runs through Nov. 1, 2014.

"Resort" by David Keefe
Surrealism was first an early 20th century cultural and artistic movement, in which dream-like images and imaginings were juxtaposed as response to rational thought.

Or, as the exhibition catalog puts it: "Surrealism is an attempt to revolt against the inherent contradictions of a society ruled by rational thought while dominated by war and oppression. Surrealism seeks expression of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and free of aesthetic and moral preoccupation."

Got that? Crazy stuff.

Works presented in the NVAM event include that of U.S. Marine veteran David Keefe, who enlisted in 2002 and served in Iraq in 2006-2007. Among other images, his painting "Resort" co-mingles swimming fish and mortar rounds, frozen lakes and desert sand.

"I start with certain imagery, whether it’s a memory from childhood or experience from Iraq, and all of a sudden images and time collapse," Keefe says in an interview presented on the NVAM website. "I grew up fishing in Minnesota, and that’s where 'Resort' comes from: ice fishing. So it's an ice fishing scene with me as a little boy in the very front. But under the ice are these bombs that I remember from Iraq, these mortars. So the fish become bombs and the bombs become fish. [...]"

For Keefe, surrealism is a way to find similarities among cultures, as well as to make the past a more-immediate—almost explosive—presence for viewers. He says:
Simultaneously as a young child ice-fishing and as a young adult fishing for bombs in Iraq, my memories are no longer the past and develop into a new present tense. This unstable paradigm seemingly becomes a labyrinth of simulated possibilities presenting a world for my characters to contemplate and choose their destiny, yet their fate is as fragile as the convergence of bombs and ice. These paradoxes create a visual tension, and nonetheless, these bombs could explode this fragile world of ice and ruins, blowing it all sky high. In a blink of an eye, my memories, experiences and reality could all cease to exist.
PHOTO: National Veterans Art Museum
The exhibition features the work of Korean War veteran Jim Leedy, whose "Atomic Skull" and "The Earth Lies Screaming" are nearly overwhelming in size and scope. Each appears to be constructed of mud and bone.

Vietnam-era artist-veterans include William Dugan, Stan Gillett, Mike Helbing, and Richard Yohnka.

Besides Keefe, artist-veterans who served during recent conflicts include Robynn Murray, Giuseppe Pelicano, and Erhen Tool.

Pictures of the opening reception for the exhibition are posted on the NVAM Facebook page here. The organization's website is here.

Founded in 1981 as the Vietnam Veterans Art Group, the organization took on the purpose of including artists from all wars in 2003. The organization was re-named the National Veterans Art Museum in 2010. Its Portage Park neighborhood location houses the work of more than 255 artists—more than 2,500 pieces in all. An on-line collection of artist-veteran work is here.

For more information:
National Veterans Art Museum
4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Second Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60641 
Phone: 312.326.0270
E-mail: info@nvam.org

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