“Since Vietnam: The War and Its Aftermath”

For most of us the Vietnam War ended a decade ago, but it is still the subject of much recent art. “Since Vietnam: The War and Its Aftermath,” an exhibition of work by 17 artists, curated by Richard Turner, provided a kind of sanctuary for images and objects inflected by various degrees of pain and inflated by various levels of rhetoric. Modes of response by these artists, some of them Vietnam veterans, to the subject of America’s longest war include gestures of confession, outrage, solemnity, and a certain pathetic humor. But gesture is either qualified or muffled by the gallery space.

Alfred Quiroz’s large multimedia wall mural and relief, Vietnam: Put em on top of us, 1984, is an astute combination of pathos and Fritz-the-Cat hilarity in which a squad of GIs is locked in fierce combat with the Viet Cong. A jet, streaking to the rescue, drops its bombs “on top” of them. Blood and guts are everywhere. One traces the narrative in bullets. It’s chaos. But it’s also an inventory of Pop symbols for Vietnam, including the severing of an enemy ear, the legless black soldier and Robert Duvall’s famous deck of cards from Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, the omnivorous dragonfly helicopters, et al. Quiroz also squeezes in a reference to Robert Capa’s photograph of a falling soldier from the Spanish Civil War, and foreshortens the hillside battle scene in a way that recalls the numerous late 19th- and early-20th-century artistic treatments of Custer’s Last Stand. With this work, one in a series of “Medal of Honor” murals, Quiroz besieges history painting with comic-book realism and represents history through the haze of a pallid exoticism.

Against such a backdrop, Han Thi Pham’s series of five Cibachrome photo graphs, in which the artist, a Vietnamese refugee, acts out her homelessness, conveys the confusion and yearning of those displaced by the war. “Post Obit Series,” 1983, is a portrait of the artist as an apparition hovering between cultural identities. Pham’s symbols are often too literal (a red dress signifies Communism, a white dress freedom), but her dreamlike sequence of arranged images and props seems about to awaken into theatrical performance; all she needs is time. Terry Allen memorializes the homeless American soldier in his multimedia sculpture, The First Day, 1983; a lead “wall” which refers to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Allen’s piece sits on the floor. It requires the viewer to squat, to crouch (to duck?), to nearly kneel. Suspended upon the gray monolith are such disconnected objects as a stuffed bird, a feather, and separately framed assemblages that include poems, a bamboo brush, and tiny lead strips that hold things in place. Like the flowers, war mementos, and notes placed at the base and in the cracks of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Allen's assembled paraphernalia is offered as evidence of a disassembled life.

But it’s too easy to eulogize. A lot of mediocre work here unintentionally suffocates the pain it represents by framing it in artistic conventions that are more receptacles for confession than vehicles for the communication of insight. The best and most effective works are like props that threaten to burst into the viewer’s space and interrupt the complacency associated with the gallery environment, while the least effective scream at you. Some, such as Arnold Mesche’s painting of lynched chickens on an impressionistic background quoted from Monet, attempt to catalyze an internal esthetic dissonance by pressing together irreconcilable images, but feel more displaced than displacing in the context of such esthetic and emotional diversity. Others, such as Tad Savinar’s tiny camouflage wheelchair on a ramp, can be seen as proposals for larger public work.

And yet the real struggle in this exhibition was between the artists and the display conventions that isolate their voices from the outside world. Sure, this is an old issue. But there’s been a lot of political, or politicized, art in southern California lately, addressing such themes as intervention in Central America, nuclear holocaust , the demise of labor unions, and, of course, Vietnam, and what is finally engaging about it is the strategic contortions one observes as artists try to reconcile the ironic distance of Modernism with the directness of social activism. More often than not, political content is made to look like art, and, ironically, thereby becomes distant. But when artists use the Modernist conventions of display—conventions of scale and of image segregation, for example—to put quotes around actual relics, it seems to work. With a Duchampian sleight of hand, curator Turnerinstalled his brother’s collection of “Pleiku” jackets—the decorative jackets worn by American servicemen in Vietnam—in a room above the exhibition. They’re about fifteen years old now, young, but ancient in terms of the national conscience. Strung together on horizontal bamboo poles, they looked like battle standards, deer on a rack, and crucified ghosts. In a sense, the entire exhibition was a frame, a Modernist predella for the missing contents of these dazzling garments, the men who once wore them.

Jeff Kelley