The Face of Battle

Review by Cindy Chambers and Jordana Green Laurent

The National Portrait Gallery’s “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now” examines the toils and tribulations of modern warfare in the lives of US service members. The six installations, ranging from photography to audio-visual, capture moments of pain, boredom, and camaraderie. Death, in all its oppressive forms, lingers through the entire collection.

The exhibit’s introduction reminds us “how military service has now become an integral part of advertising campaigns for everything from beer to trucks to real estate; the veteran as a product placement vehicle speaks of a business-as-usual mentality that puts us in danger of losing any sense of what it means to have been in combat.”

To combat this danger of sensory deprivation to combat, the exhibit brings the faces of war front and center by literally showing us the humanity- the good, bad, and ugly- of war.

Bedrooms of the Fallen by Ashley Gilbertson

At first glance, Ashley Gilbertson’s photos are almost inviting. Everything is familiar. The bedrooms of young adults in US working- to middle-class suburban homes. The bed with a nearby nightstand; paperbacks; computers; school awards; the US flag on the wall or sewn into a pillow. But then you begin to notice the age of the room. There are posters for movies that released six years ago; a class of 2013 high school letterman jacket; unopened Christmas presents in the corner. The bedrooms are unoccupied both in the photo and in the homes.

Reading the captions on each print, you learn the bedrooms housed US service members before they were killed in action. The human cost of war is never more apparent than when you recognize that the service member died two to six years ago, but their family has left the bedroom untouched. As if a personal museum exhibit, the room expresses the service member’s hobbies, religion, musical tastes, and all those habits that make up an individual’s personality. Gilbertson’s choice of black-and-white prints, over color, only further locks the room in time.

As much about grief as the ultimate sacrifice of war, Bedrooms of the Fallen reminds you of the importance of kindness. Crawling through traffic, waiting at the VA pharmacy, or listening to your Post member’s recitation of his day, all these moments are being lived by someone who might be grieving or trying to move forward.

Homage to 2nd Lt. John Holt Jr. by Vincent Valdez

The sole exhibit with a mixed media approach, Vincent Valdez’s work speaks through sight and sound. You are immediately drawn to a video projection of a flag draped-casket slowly floating across the screen with rotating images of an urban American neighborhood in the background. Speakers blast “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” an anti-war Irish punk song by The Pogues. It is jarring and upsetting, so you look away only to be transfixed by an oil painting that stretches across two-thirds of the wall. Appearing almost photo-like, the close-up of an army soldier’s battle-weary face conveys the trauma of war. When you see the display-case housing a tri-fold US flag devoid of color, you feel the exhibit’s message, not as a whisper, but as a blunt club to the face. War broke this soldier down and ultimately took his life.

Valdez explained that the featured soldier, John Holt Jr., was a good friend and dutiful citizen. After serving a tour in Iraq as a combat medic, 2nd Lt. Holt Jr. returned home suffering from PTSD. Before deploying for a second tour in 2009, he died by suicide. Duty and loss ring forth in this homage to John, friend of Vincent, attendant of the wounded, and one of our fallen heroes.

A Soldier’s Life by Stacey Pearsall

 Air Force photographer Stacey Pearsall noted, “I’ve often heard war described as perpetual boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I’ve seen and documented both.” One of the few female combat photographers, she has worked in more than forty-two countries, including serving three tours in Iraq.

Pearsall’s lens captures the social moments and comradeship of life behind the front lines, as well as the pressure of soldiers as they wait for the inevitable patrol or mission. In “Apple Pie & Baseball,” a young soldier practices America’s national pastime. He swings a bat with a look of intense concentration, allowing you to momentarily forget that he is standing in front a tank and could be seconds from danger.

By living, eating, sleeping, and grieving with her subjects, Pearsall broke down the boundaries between soldier and photographer. What emerged were raw photos showing the humanity and emotions behind the helmet – reminding us that war is more than bullets. The gritty reality she reveals is one filled with emotional and physical tolls far removed from everyday US civilian life.

In 2014, Pearsall participated in JWV’s 119th Convention in Charleston, SC. JWV members posed for full portraits and headshots as part of her Veterans Portrait Project. Like her current exhibit, the compelling images project personality and drive you to ask, “what’s their story?” Visit her website to review her full collection.

Memorials in Pencil by Emily Prince

In the early years of the War on Terror, artist Emily Prince began reading obituaries of the deceased to put a name and a face on the losses that had become a montage on TV. She soon created pencil sketches of the fallen, on paper that corresponded to their skin tones. If she could find the information, she also included a few sentences about soldiers.

The archival project features chronological pieces from June 2009 to May 2012 displayed in a dizzying grid-like order; from a distance, the installation could be a scrabble board. The chaos of the layout is representative of the scale and depth of loss, grief, and memory.

It is eerie to see the painstaking detail Prince put into every portrait – over 2.500 hand-drawn sketches. Up close, you can see every line and read the words she has lovingly inscribed at the top. Each portrait lists the birth and death dates of the subject, a reminder that they are gone too young and too soon.

Volume 71. Number 2. Summer 2017

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