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Art and War

February 10, 2008

Americans have many obsessions, from celebrities to sports; but underlying them all are wealth and war. From the banks of the Potomac to the Pacific coast, grand mansions are intermingled with humble, hallowed sites of gory battles. Few of George Washington’s Continental troops ever set foot in their commander’s cotton plantation manor house. But they set the pattern for poorly paid soldiers fighting and dying to expand a pugnaciously warring nation ruled by a few fabulously enriched families.

These two obsessions are seldom woven together so provocatively as in Jane Irish’s art works that were recently on display in Philadelphia, at the Locks Gallery on Washington Square. Irish’s tapestry-size rendering of lavish manor rooms “signifies notions of class, of robber barons, of elitism, of society's impulse to ignore—to literally paint over, in these works—unpleasant or disturbing truths,” a Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer, Amy Rosenberg, observed.

In these paintings, however, there’s something more: “embedded in a gorgeously detailed 14-by-61/2-foot painting of an ornate 18th-century French rococo dining room…raised letters spell out war poetry by Vietnam veterans,” Rosenberg noted. “The words lurk and invade, hide and appear, fade into the background and burst out of the surface of the oh-so-civilized settings. They are the snipers hidden in these lush interior landscapes.”

“In the painting ‘Thoughts on a Monsoon Morning/Orange Room,’ for example,” Rosenberg added, “viewers might be startled as their eyes refocus from a ring of red rococo chairs to this line from Boston poet David Connelly near the chandelier on the right: ‘I hate every f-ing one of you who make dollars from our deaths.’” Connelly’s ballad of bitterness at those who profit from war swirls for eight stanzas through the 9-by-12-foot painting of a room in some palatial estate. Amid the salty language is this anguished realization:

Used by the rich of my country.
Duped by those I looked up to.
Wondering, how can I tell those
who blindly wave the red, white, and blue?

This blunt-spoken soldier’s outburst floats like a ghostly appearance in a luscious painting of a massive, ornate dining room punctuated by a shadowy protest poem. It includes a preface noting it was “Originally written after a memorial service for 59 troopers” of his unit in Vietnam who died in one battle. It sets the tone of Irish’s art show, “Paintings for Winning Hearts and Minds”— a reference to an official slogan of our military operations in Vietnam and the title of a collection of poetry by veterans that I coedited and contributed to, published in 1972.

Another painting of another ostentatious dining room contains short poems by six poets, lurking in the chandelier, the lavender wallpaper, the ornately framed landscape painting on the far wall, the lush rug on which sits the opulent dining table set for dinner. My poem, “The Longest War,” floats above the fireplace. W.D. Ehrhart’s “The Sniper’s Mark” looms out of the landscape painting. Stark poems of events and scenes in Vietnam by Basil T. Paquet (“In a Plantation”), Don Receveur ( “Personal”), Stan Platke (“The Quiet Lie”) and Herbert Krohn (“Ferryman’s Song at Binh Minh”) faintly weave across the room like lingering swirls of old cigar smoke. The wealthy folks have vanished, or not yet arrived. The ghosts of the war seem to fade away, then abruptly loom toward a passing viewer.

“The table has been set for ten, and the room glows with an aristocratic flavor—candle-holder, chandelier, blue screens, oil paintings, bone china, Persian carpets, golden drapes. A larger-than-life mirror hangs above the mantelpiece. Can you see yourself reflected in it?” a Bryn Mawr College student, Anna Mendoza, wrote in an insightful review of Irish’s startling art show posted on a news writing class blog, English House Gazette (englishhousegazette.blogspot.com).

“As you stare at these beautiful scenes, what pops out at you is the notion that they’re founded on ugly realities,” Mendoza mused. As an illustration, she quoted two searing stanzas of Connelly’s bitter contempt for war profiteers.

“Irish, whose works [were] exhibited at Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery from Dec. 7 to Jan. 12, calls herself a history painter. She ought to call herself an activist painter as well. … ‘Paintings for Winning Hearts and Minds’ consists of well lit scenes meant to enlighten and educate the public on the fortune some people make out of war,” Mendoza added. “She did the background research for these works at LaSalle University, home to the world’s largest collection of materials relating to the Vietnam War. But another source of inspiration, she said, was Jack London’s The Iron Heel, a novel about an authoritarian oligarchy that fears artists because they tell the truth.”

I’m flabbergasted by this brash juxtaposition of antiwar poetry and playrooms for the rich, “privileged havens from the ordinary world where even the slightest hint of political protest would seem out of place,” as Carter Ratcliff, an art critic, wrote in the show’s program book. I’m delighted that one of my poems and works by fellow poets were used to such thought-provoking effect. Jane Irish has created an exciting public art that “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable,” as Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” wryly said of newspapers in the twilight of the Gilded Age, when some favored insiders’ fortunes rose while American soldiers waged a bitter war to control unruly tribes sitting on lands to be plundered for profits halfway around the world in the Philippines.

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