Nothing inspires artistic creation more than genuine crisis. Following World War II, for example, American forces found astonishing quantities of poetry and art hidden among the rafters in Auschwitz. When humans reach the end of their rope, they frequently turn to art to express their deepest concerns.
The Vietnam War was our country's longest and least popular war. It scarred our nation in ways we're still struggling to comprehend, but it left the deepest wounds in those who fought it.
For the next few months, various venues on the UNM campus are hosting exhibits and other events designed to explore different facets of that painful conflict.
The centerpiece of the project is Vietnam Visions, an exhibit of art from Chicago's National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. Split between the UNM Art Museum and the Jonson Gallery, the show consists of work from 37 artists. Some of these artists are finely trained professionals who went on to develop highly successful careers as artists. Others are mere amateurs. Yet all these artists wrestle with similar beasts.
This show might crush you. It crushed me. It presents a raw exposed nerve that every sane person will be reluctant to probe. Familiar period music from the Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, the Doors, Hendrix, Dylan and others waft through both galleries, taking on a whole new meaning in this environment by sharpening the swampy nightmare depicted in so much of this work.
Ron Mann's “Death Mask” is a large-scale black and white acrylic painting depicting several bird-like phantoms that seem to wing out from a tortured mind. At least one of the birds looks insectoid. Near the bottom of the frame, an exposed heart seems ripped from a ribcage. Mann's stark painting presents the clearest possible portrait of naked napalmed terror.
Keith Decker's untitled photo diptych is even less subtle. The image on the left presents a soldier asleep on a cot. The image on the right shows a homeless man, presumably a Vietnam veteran, asleep in a garbage-strewn alley beside an abandoned shopping cart.
Most of these images are either depressing, terrifying or some mixture of both. Even James N. McJunkin Jr.'s photograph of smiling, shirtless Vietnamese boys hamming it up for the camera has a melancholy tinge to it. You wonder what impact the war eventually had on these innocent kids. Then you notice one of the boys, fists raised, squatting in a mock boxer's stance, preparing to do battle with the enemy. You can easily imagine him holding a rifle in the jungle a few years down the line, his carefree smile long vanished from his face.
Two other exhibits at UNM build on the art exhibit. Wandering over to UNM's Zimmerman Library, you'll find an absolutely gut-wrenching display of letters written by American soldiers in Vietnam. “We are all in sad shape now,” writes David Westphall in 1967. “I know that at one point myself, my feet about to crack open, my stomach knotted by hunger and diarrhea, my back feeling like a mirror made of nerves shattered in a million pieces by my flak jacket, pack and extra mortar and machine gun ammo, my hands a mass of hamburger from thorn cuts, and my face a mass of welts from mosquitoes, I desired greatly to throw down everything, slump into the water of the paddy and sob.” A few months later, Westphall and 12 of his men died in a Viet Cong ambush.
At UNM's Maxwell Museum there's an exhibit made up entirely of photographs taken by North Vietnamese photographers during what the Vietnamese call the American War. Most of these black and white pictures were never widely distributed. Many were mere propaganda pieces. Yet they expose a side of the conflict most Americans have never seen. There are images of Viet Cong setting bamboo booby traps or digging secret supply tunnels. Some of the photographs are eerily beautiful depictions of war-time horror, like the one of the injured Cambodian guerilla fighter carried into a makeshift operation room in the middle of a mangrove swamp, female doctors, swamp water up to their knees, gathered around an operating table draped in mosquito nets.
It takes time to work your way through all four exhibits, but it's time well spent. Different people will have different reactions to Vietnam Voices and Visions Unfiltered. I felt sad, certainly, and often horrified by the things I saw, but the emotion I felt most was just plain anger—anger at this repulsive waste of human life propped up by a long, well-documented string of official lies.
At the Jonson Gallery, which was my last stop on the tour, I sat down at a table to read through comments written by other visitors to the exhibit. Many people noted how timely these exhibits were. As I flipped through the pages, The Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” suddenly began playing on the stereo. The irony didn't escape me.
Vietnam Visions and related exhibits run through Jan. 14 at various UNM venues. 277-4001 and 277-4967.