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A total of 1,678 American military personnel have perished so far in ongoing missions overseas, according to the Pentagon’s latest U.S. Casualty Status update. That’s 1,519 reported dead in Operation Iraqi Freedom plus 118 killed in and around Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and another 41 in other locations.
“Faces of the Fallen,” a massive outpouring of portraiture intended “to honor the American service men and women who have died,” has room for only 1,327 of them. “There are that many of the fallen represented,” says exhibit co-chair Annette Polan, a professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design who recruited nearly 200 volunteers to memorialize each of the deceased through individual portraits.
“We have works in clay, works in glass, works in metals, polychrome, wood carvings, collage, montage,” Polan says of the display, which opened with much fanfare this week at Arlington National Cemetery.
Not all 1,300-plus casualties represented in “Faces” actually get an honest-to-goodness portrait, however. More than 100 of them, in fact, are honored only with an anonymous, mass-produced blue silhouette logo and a small name plate.
There are many reasons for these less-than-artistic tributes to lost troops: Organizers couldn’t find photos of some of the dead. Some of the artists didn’t finish their pieces on time. Oh, and some of the portraits got yanked just prior to the exhibition’s March 22 opening on account of their content—a move that some critics suggest is highly un-American.
“We have been told by our government that the United States is engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom to help bring democracy to our brethren in Iraq and to spread democracy throughout the world,” says Carole Greenwood, one of several local artists whose works were eliminated from the highly ballyhooed exhibition. “If that is indeed the case…I ask why the organizers of this show are behaving in ways that directly contradict the fundamental freedoms that are held sacred within the American democratic system—freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.”
Whoa, slow down there, lefty. That kind of talk has no place at “Faces of the Fallen,” which organizers have tried to keep, Polan says, “as apolitical as possible.”
Not that it seems to be working. “Is it appropriate,” Greenwood asks, “to show respect for mourners with complete disregard of the ideals and principles that their children, friends, and family members died for?”
Hey, this is Washington, after all. And war is a pretty polarizing thing.
“I’m sooo anti-war,” says Greenwood, whose name, just like the Spirit of Justice’s naughty ta-tas, has been covered up—obscured by strips of silvery tape affixed to the plaques of the soldiers she had been assigned to commemorate. And her finished works? They’re nowhere near the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, where “Faces of the Fallen” is housed.
Instead, you can find Greenwood’s pieces inside her D.C. studio, where they’ve been since they were rejected. She was told, she says, that not all the pieces are “vertical”—that is, they don’t conform to the exhibition’s 8-inch-by-6-inch size requirement. But three of the seven pieces do, in fact, meet that standard. Why weren’t those included? Perhaps it was their politics.
Each of the portraits is rendered on a slab of plaster onto which Greenwood transferred the freshly photocopied image of a lost soldier. Then the artist added a handwritten message, taken from her own e-mails, letters, and diary entries—statements that she believes appropriately express “sadness and loss.” Each slab also features other images, too.
One piece, for instance, shows Army Sgt. Christopher E. Cutchall of McConnellsburg, Pa., who’s seen smiling and saluting with a two-fingered peace sign. The words “i am risking everything” are scribbled at the top. The image of Cutchall, who was 30 when he died on Sept. 29, 2003, is juxtaposed with a blurrier picture. That one, Greenwood explains, shows an Afghan man who is presently being detained in the United States.
Another of her works pays tribute to Army Sgt. Darrin K. Potter of Louisville, Ky., who died the same week as Cutchall. “[H]e was there, every kiss, every conversation, every time you touched me, he was there,” it reads. Potter’s picture is paired with the faded image of an Iraqi woman mourning a dead child cradled in her arms.
“They’re all very disturbing,” Greenwood admits. The pieces are intended “not to vilify anyone,” she says. They’re supposed to provoke dialogue. “Is an American life worth more than an Iraqi life?” she asks.
It’s the kind of question that seemed in keeping with what Greenwood originally assumed was the intent of the exhibition. She signed on with Polan’s project last summer, back when it was titled “Lost Potential: Portraits From Iraq”—back when Greenwood figured that she and Polan were on the same side. “I thought, Great, Annette’s a super-big pacifist,” Greenwood says.
Last spring, Polan had experienced what she calls “one of those divinely inspired visions,” sparked by a four-page photo spread of U.S. casualties in the Washington Post. Her first plan was to display artist-made portraits of the soldiers at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in an exhibition prior to November’s presidential election. But that didn’t happen. And not long after President George W. Bush was re-elected, participating artists started noticing that Polan’s project had begun to change.
So did former Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle and the other individual donors who chipped in to fund the $180,000 exhibition. And so did corporate sponsors including General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and Bristol Myers Squibb and such hawkish politicos as Republican Sens. John McCain and John Warner, who became honorary exhibition chairs. Before long, the event had become something other than anti-war. In fact, according to its Web site, it was “not a political statement.”
Polan admits that the project changed—that’s just the nature of art. “Every work that I’ve ever created personally has transformed and developed and morphed as I’ve worked on it,” she says. But, she adds, “throughout all of this, it has been a prime consideration to respect and protect the privacy of these families.”
To participants such as Greenwood, though, “Faces of the Fallen” has become too focused on comforting soldiers’ families and not enough about preventing future causalities. “If she had said that from the beginning,” she says, “I would’ve said, ‘No thanks.’”
Ditto for Judy Byron, whose 12 works were similarly rejected by Polan. “I participated because the original intent was against the war,” says the artist, who submitted hand-drawn black-and-white silhouettes “with little hits of color.” She also “stenciled, in the middle of their faces,” she adds, “the age that they died.”
Byron thought her works would prove to be “nice aesthetic pause pieces” amid a sea of otherwise typical portrait-style faces and also provide “a tender recognition of loss and the ephemeral nature of life.” Polan thought otherwise. “She felt that they focused too much on the sense of loss,” Byron says.
Loss, of course, is just what Byron wanted to convey—a message that she believes should be part of the exhibition. In its present state, the show will be “moving for a moment,” Byron says. “Then those people go home. And they’ll still have empty houses. And the war goes on.”
Of course, “Faces of the Fallen” still includes a few political messages. Many of the portraits that organizers included feature the American flag or the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Former Corcoran professor Bill Newman, who at the exhibition’s opening told reporters that he is “against the war,” adorned his work with “God Bless America.”
Abstract painter David Carlson—whose latest work typically avoids, according to his statement posted on Washingtonart.net, “recognizable or popular images”—opted to start all over on his portraits after organizers nixed his first submissions earlier this month. Carlson had initially combined the images of four different soldiers into composites that gave each of them, as he puts it, “an equanimity in their service and in their death.”
“Each digital print contains the images of Dustin Sides, Robert Scheetz Jr., Aaron Elandt, and Nicholaus Zimmer in different order, identified by their eyes,” according to Carlson’s original “Faces of the Fallen” statement. “The fragmentation of the portraits allowed me to bring together the fragility of life with the mystery and equality that follows.”
But this approach just didn’t mesh with Polan’s evolving vision. “My original images were made for the original show,” Carlson says. To make it into the new show, Carlson amended his pieces, he says, “so that the family would be able to recognize the faces of their sons.”
Polan—who also tossed out works by locals Tom Green and Mansoora Hassan—isn’t ruling out further cuts, either, especially now that relatives of the deceased will actually get to see the art on display. “If a family wishes to pull a portrait,” she says, “we have to respect that.”
Giving in, it seems, is just inherent in her divinely inspired vision. “That’s not censorship,” Polan says. “That’s curating.”
Now Showing At The City Museum: THE MOST UNDERUTILIZED BEAUX-ARTS BUILDING IN D.C.
Goodbye, “Washington Stories.”
Hello, Washington Storytellers Theatre.
For its 15th season, “the nation’s only storytelling theatre for adults,” according to its Web site, will be “bringing the best storytellers in the country” to the shuttered City Museum of Washington, DC.
Specifically, the nonprofit group will be hosting all its MainStage performances in the beaux-arts building’s 148-seat cinema—exactly where the museum used to screen its 23-minute condensed history of the District. The 2,178-square-foot space, which rents for a minimum of $800 per four-hour block, will now feature such renowned performers as Cuban-American tale-teller Caren Deedy and “talking book and rhythm master” Onawumi Jean Moss, who took the podium on March 19.
Associate Dean of Students at Amherst College in
Massachusetts, Moss uses her performances, according to Washington Storytellers, to “encourage pride of heritage, appreciation of cultural differences, and recognition of kinship.”
All three came into play at the City Museum, where displays on our proud heritage and various cultural differences suffered from a serious lack of kinship at the admission gate, resulting in the museum’s closing last fall.
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