Category: Artists and the Iraq war

Christmas in Fallujah

“They say Osama’s in the mountains deep in a cave near Pakistan. But there’s a sea of blood in Baghdad, a sea of oil in the sand. Between the Tigris and Euphrates another day comes to an end. It’s Christmas In Fallujah, Peace on earth goodwill to men.” - Words and Music By Billy Joel. Preformed By Cass Dillon, 2007.

I’d like to offer readers best wishes for the holiday season. I’ll resume my regular writing schedule come the new year.

Two Very Different Diamond Rings

Two very different diamond rings are the focus of artworks currently being discussed in the art world and beyond - Blue Diamond, a sculpture by postmodernist Jeff Koons, and Marine Wedding, a photograph by Nina Berman. The artworks are poles apart, but each illustrates in its own way the crisis American society has fallen into. The works also exemplify the contrasting directions American art is taking in the face of that crisis.

Blue Diamond is a giant, highly polished stainless steel sculpture that’s nearly eight feet tall and more than seven feet wide. The replica jewel will be sold Nov. 13 at Christie’s auction of postwar and contemporary art, and it’s expected to sell for as high as $12 million. Christie’s described the work as “an almost comic-strip archetype, a stereotype, a cliché that has burst into monumental existence in our world, speaking of wealth and luxury and awe in an open, sincere and deliberately uncritical manner.” In other words, Blue Diamond is a crass celebration of ostentatious wealth that carries the moral authority and profundity of a Hallmark greeting card.

Sculpture by Jeff Koons

[ Blue Diamond - Sculpture by Jeff Koons. The moral authority and profundity of a Hallmark greeting card. Photo credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. ]

In contrast to the vapid kitsch offered by Koons, photographer Nina Berman puts forward a humanist vision that is at once heartrending and busting with empathy. In her photo, Marine Wedding, a diamond wedding ring is obscured by a beautiful bridal bouquet - and an unsettling vision of America’s war in Iraq. In 2004, Marine Corps reservist Ty Ziegal was trapped in a burning truck after it came under attack by Iraqi guerillas, that he survived was a miracle, but 19 rounds of reconstructive surgery could not restore the face stolen by war. The wedding day portrait of Renee Kline, 21, and Ty Ziegal, 24, has launched an eternal discussion on the meaning of love, devotion, sacrifice and war - whereas the only conversation surrounding the Koons sculpture has to do with how much it will sell for. You can view Berman’s photo on the New York Times website.

It is remarkable that Nina Berman’s photograph and Jeff Koons’ sculpture exist in the same time frame, and that they are both meant to reflect the current state of American society. Berman’s Marine Wedding does so with weighty philosophical insight, while Koons’ Blue Diamond can’t even muster enough relevance to be called inconsequential.

Berman’s photo comes from a larger body of work she calls, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, which are compassionate studies of wounded Iraq war vets. Marine Wedding stands alone as a jarring image, with the great majority of images from Berman’s series being quite tame and contemplative by comparison. But Purple Hearts by no means represents the totality of Berman’s vision, and an overview of her growing body of work reveals an artist sincerely pursuing an honest examination of “the American Way of Life.” By comparison, even a cursory review of Koons’ oeuvre exposes an artist with all the sophistication of a corn dog.

UPDATE: Ty Ziegal died on Dec. 26, 2012 at the age of 30.

The “Fundamental” Art Exhibit

Fundamental is an international touring art exhibition that explores the prickly subject of fundamentalist religious intolerance at the turn of the 21st century. I’m pleased to announce that my painting, A People Under Command: USA Today, is included in the exhibit, which tours four European cities from September 2007 until June 2008.

Painting by Mark Vallen

[ A People Under Command: USA Today - Mark Vallen. 1985. Acrylic on unstretched canvas. 6 ft x 8 ft. Click here for a larger image and more details on the painting. ]

Fundamental will premiere at two venues in Manchester, England, starting September 1st, 2007 - the Zion Arts Center (running until Sept. 15th, 2007), and the Green Room (running until Sept. 22nd, 2007). The exhibit then travels to Madrid and Berlin, with a final stop in Leeds, England, where the exhibit concludes in 2008. Complete details regarding the exhibition can be found at the official Fundamental website.

Painted in 1985, A People Under Command: USA Today, was my wry comment on the rise in America of right-wing political ideology along with a resurgent, politicized Christian fundamentalism. The concept for the painting came to me while watching a born-again preacher on television performing a song about “God’s Army” and how true believers were “a people under command” lead by the ultimate general - Jesus Christ. Since I had always heard Jesus referred to as the “Prince of Peace,” I found the jingoistic psalm more than a little disturbing, especially when coupled with the rightward drift in American politics as exemplified by the administration of Ronald Reagan. My painting heralded the new dark ages - but little did I realize it would take on a frightening new dimension come the events of September 11th, 2001.

Detail of painting by Mark Vallen

[ A People Under Command - Mark Vallen. 1985. Detail. America’s new skyline. ]

The didacticism of my painting notwithstanding, it may come as a surprise to learn that my artwork was in part inspired by a Pop Art masterwork. The stilted realism and irregular perspective I employed in depicting the presumably impossible scene, coupled with the fact that each visual component of the painting was derived from observing modern American life - points directly to Pop as a stimulus. In 1956 artists Richard Hamilton and John McHale collaborated on the creation of, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? - a small collage created with photos cut from popular American magazines of the day. It is generally considered to be the first work of Pop Art, and its skewed perspective and juxtaposition of discordant images provided an uneasy look at mass commercial culture. It was in essence, a glimpse of things to come… and the future wasn’t looking bright. Well, that future has arrived, and in creating A People Under Command, the collage of Hamilton and McHale served as a touchstone for my own vision of a culture gone haywire.

Detail of painting by Mark Vallen

[ A People Under Command - Mark Vallen. 1985. Detail. "I’m the Boss." Through the looking glass with the Gipper. ]

I believe there are many types of fundamentalist views running riot in the world today, for example, political, economic and national viewpoints are often reduced to fundamentalist positions. However, it’s religious fundamentalism that receives the most attention at present - though I’d argue all of these “isms” are interrelated. The organizers of Fundamental are billing their exhibit as “a timely glimpse into the disturbing world of global religious extremism”, and to their credit they’ve evenhandedly applied their focus on the extremists of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It is no doubt a thorny concept to build an art exhibition around, especially in today’s climate - but the exhibit cannot in any way be characterized as a show opposed to religion.

Aside from myself, participating artists include: Debbie Hill (a photojournalist living in Israel), Frans Smeets (Dutch artist and sculptor), Parastou Forouhar (an Iranian-born artist residing in Germany), Khosrow Hassan (an Iranian artist based in Tehran), Dalila Hamdoun (a French-Algerian artist based in London), Garth Eager (an English multi-media artist based in Manchester), Andrew Stern (a photojournalist based in New York), Andreas Böhmig (German photojournalist), Joel Pelletier (US painter based in Los Angeles), and Johan Oldekop (a UK based photojournalist).

On Decorating The Blast Walls

I once saw a photograph of an artist painting a mural, and what came to mind? That the artist was playing a constructive role in society by creating a public work meant to beautify his community? Of course I had many reactions to the photo, but in reading about the actual circumstances in which it was made, suddenly a different set of responses come into play, as well as questions regarding the social purposes of art. A closer examination of the photo told me something about the art and artists in our own respective communities.

The photo was taken on July 20, 2007 by Associated Press photographer, Khalid Mohammed, and it showed an Iraqi artist painting a mural on the steel and cement blast walls erected by U.S. occupation troops in downtown Baghdad, fortifications meant to protect government buildings from car bombs. Commissioned by the U.S. backed Shiite dominated central government, the artist’s mural is part of a government funded “beautification project,” where non-controversial and colorful murals are being created and installed on bomb blast walls all across Baghdad.

In painting the ramparts of a military occupation, does the Iraqi artist somehow make life better for his people? I don’t mean to say that art should not serve to ameliorate suffering and bring joy to the soul, those are, I believe, some of the main reasons why we create works of art. As Albert Camus once observed, “We have art in order not to die of life.” But when we create art, who is it for, what is its purpose, and what are its ramifications?

Knowing the context of the mural puts the artwork in a whole different light, and disconcerting questions arise that are pertinent for artists everywhere. Does the creative work most artists engage in simply conceal untenable realities? Should artworks make acceptable, that which is clearly unacceptable? At what point do the escapist elements of art move from enlightened pleasantries to enablers of malevolence? The spectacle of an artist embellishing an urban battlefield so as to mask the horrors of war is indeed a powerfully unsettling one, but is the work of that Iraqi muralist really so different from that of contemporary artists around the world? Sometimes I get the feeling that the majority of today’s artists, metaphorically speaking, are merely decorating blast walls.

As if to buttress my point, the postmodernist installation art duo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, have announced plans to construct an enormous pyramid in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. The Mastaba project is named after the pre-pyramid, bunker-like tombs of ancient Egypt that served as final resting places for Kings and Queens, though it is not yet known if today’s Royal couple of postmodernism also intend their colossal mastaba to be their final burying place.

The pyramid will stand approximately two thirds the height of the Eiffel Tower, and will be constructed of 390,500 orange-yellow oil barrels; but don’t presume a pyramid built of oil barrels in the middle of the United Arab Emirates is some type of social commentary, it is not, after all this is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have been quoted as saying, “We do not create messages.” In the 1960’s the couple attempted to build their pyramid in Texas and then the Netherlands, however these plans didn’t work out. They finally turned to the UAE, but in 1980 the Iran-Iraq war erupted, a conflagration that took the lives of a million people and marked a deepening involvement in the region by the U.S. Needless to say, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art project was put on hold, and it wouldn’t be revived until just two years ago.

Washington aided both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, providing arms and intelligence information to the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini; of course that brinksmanship has only intensified, with the U.S. now occupying Iraq and threatening military action against Iran. With all this chaos as a backdrop, our postmodern dynamic duo have revived their pyramid project. The UAE “is very keen to see this project realized,” according to Christo, and the cost of building the pyramid will be underwritten by the government of the oil rich Gulf state. Contrasting with previous Christo projects, the structure will not be dismantled, and Christo has stated that the pyramid, according to unnamed engineers, “could last for 5,000 years.” But why is this harebrained project being embarked upon now, with the entire Middle East either on fire or about to explode? There is no ulterior motive or profound reasoning behind the return of the Mastaba project, because Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as apolitical and self-absorbed artists, are simply “decorating the blast walls.”

On the other hand, those artists who want their works to have a noble purpose, can fall into a trap of a different sort. In the Summer of 2005, British graffiti artist, Banksy, traveled to the West Bank to leave a series of stencil murals on Israel’s so-called “security fence” surrounding the Palestinian territories. On his website the artist wrote: “How illegal is it to vandalize a wall, if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice? The Israeli government is building a wall which stands three times the height of the Berlin wall and will eventually run for over 700km - the distance from London to Zurich.” Once Banksy began his murals, he was confronted by an old Palestinian man who said, “You’ve painted the wall and made it look beautiful.” The artist replied with a “Thank you”, only to be admonished by the elder, “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home!

L.A. Artist’s Forum against the War

On Saturday, July 28th, 2007, I spoke at an artist’s forum celebrating the official Los Angeles debut of the newly published art book, Yo! What Happened to Peace? Held at the Continental Gallery in downtown L.A., the book premiere event was a lively evening of art, music and dialogue well attended by over 500 people.

Photo by Theo Jemison

[ Crowds view the prints at the Continental Gallery. Photo by Theo Jemison. ]

As regular readers of this web log may know, Yo! What Happened to Peace? is an important traveling exhibition of hand-made prints created by over 120 artists in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Those unfamiliar with the project are encouraged to read about it in one of my previous posts. In June of 2005 when the exhibit of posters was presented in Tokyo, Japan, the Japan Times hailed the show as “The art that rocks the boat of war in Iraq.”

Joining me on the speakers podium were Chicano artists Chaz Bojorquez and Favianna Rodriguez - who both share with me the distinction of being included in the Yo! What Happened to Peace? traveling exhibit and book. Activist Susan Adelman of Code Pink and Eric Estenzo of Iraq Veterans Against The War completed the list of speaker’s. We provided critical dialogue regarding the current international political situation and the obligation of artists to respond to social issues. Acting as moderator for the forum was John Carr, curator of the “Yo!” exhibit.

Forum panelists, photo by Theo Jemison

[ "Yo!" panelists pictured left to right: Famed Chicano artist Chaz Bojorquez, Chicana print maker Favianna Rodriguez, yours truly Mark Vallen, activist Susan Adelman of Code Pink, and Eric Estenzo of Iraq Veterans Against The War. Photo by Theo Jemison. ]

Downtown LA’s own Hard Pressed Studios were on hand to create silk-screen printed peace images on demand, and the crowd loved the video performance art of VJ Michael Allen, who presented streams of projection based images on the gallery walls. Poster images from the exhibit were also projected onto the gallery’s large glass windows, providing a free light show to those on the street.

In decades to come people will look back at the “Yo!” traveling exhibition and book, and appreciate the project for its historic significance. It won’t be seen as the first such project of its kind, but that won’t lessen its importance. “Yo!” will be referred to as a vital collective response made by American artists against one of the worst debacles of the early 21st century.

Clearly L.A.’s Dominant News Farce

Corporate advertising art and design without a doubt makes up much of the modern urban environment we move through on a daily basis. It has become so omnipresent that people barely notice it - inciting major advertising corporations to dream up new schemes for attention getting in an ever escalating battle over shaping public opinion. As a result, more than a few aggressively offensive and obnoxious visual campaigns have been inflicted upon us. One that comes to mind is the current ad promotion for L.A.’s local television “news” broadcaster, CBS 2 - KCAL 9. Now blanketing Los Angeles are hundreds of illuminated bus shelters and gigantic billboards that read: “CLEARLY- L.A.’s Dominant News Force.”

Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news

[ CLEARLY: L.A.'s Dominant News Force - Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news. Illuminated bus stop shelter on the streets of Los Angeles. A picture perfect example of the Totalitarian Postmodern aesthetic. ]

That the advertising company behind this jingoistic marketing blitz decided on martial language for its promotion is bad enough, but the ruthless slogan is coupled with a militaristic image that conjures up the brutality of war. No doubt the ad execs responsible for the campaign will stand behind the subterfuge that the image simply represents the CBS/KCAL fleet of helicopters flying over the city against a backdrop of L.A.’s ubiquitous palm trees, but look again, what’s that you see - Vietnam?

Posters for Apocalypse Now and Miss Saigon

[ Left: Movie poster for the film Apocalypse Now, depicting a fleet of army combat helicopters on a "search and destroy" mission over the jungles of Vietnam. Right: Theatrical poster for the musical, Miss Saigon. Someone should tell CBS/KCAL that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. ]

A quick glance at the official theatrical posters for the musical Miss Saigon, and the movie Apocalypse Now, tells you exactly what served as an inspiration for those ad execs behind the CBS/KCAL campaign, but honestly - someone should tell them that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. Or could it be that the CEO’s had the Iraq war in mind when they approved the billboard and bus shelter graphics? Perhaps they hoped that by equating the journalists of CBS/KCAL to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, some of that “support our troops” sentiment might rub off on their broadcast clients. Such an ugly and perverse display of venality coming from the commercial advertising world cannot be discounted.

CLEARLY: The Ugly Reality

[ CLEARLY: The Dominant Force? - US Army Blackhawk helicopters fly over occupied Baghdad, March 2007, in this now widely published photo taken by AFP photographer, Patrick Baz. ]

At any rate, whatever the impetus behind the CBS/KCAL ads might be, they are a picture perfect example of what I like to call, Totalitarian Postmodern, a dangerous aesthetic that threatens and undermines democratic values.

Shipping Out with Thomas Kinkade

In 2004, Thomas Kinkade published reproductions of his painting, Heading Home, a schmaltzy and manipulative piece of classic war propaganda. But the title of Kinkade’s over-sentimental artwork is unhappily far from the truth, it should properly be titled - Shipping Out. With today’s U.S. military casualties in Iraq reaching 3,441 at the time of this article, and with the Pentagon secretly launching a second troop surge that will double the number of combat troops in Iraq this year - Heading Home seems little more than a cruel fantasy.

Painting by Thomas Kinkade

[ Heading Home - Thomas Kinkade. Oil on canvas. 2004. ]

Nonetheless, Thomas Kinkade is not the only one suffering from delusions. Delivering a huge victory to Bush on May 24, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved $120 billion to fund Bush’s war, with Democrats abandoning their insistence on a timetable for the partial withdrawal of US troops in Iraq. This betrayal by the supposed opposition party not only guarantees that carnage in Iraq will continue for years to come, it ignores the will of the American people, who in the November 2006 congressional elections voted-in Democrats as a way of rejecting Bush’s Iraq war policies. As Keith Olbermann said on his MSNBC Countdown show, “The Democratic leadership has agreed to finance the deaths of Americans in a war that has only reduced the security of Americans.” He also asked, “Where are the Democratic presidential hopefuls.” No doubt they are in their respective homes or offices admiring their Thomas Kinkade prints.

This is the one and only time you’ll find a painting by Kinkade posted on my web log, and that’s because I simply wanted to illustrate my article with an image as ill-thought-out as the dim-witted politics behind the occupation of Iraq. On, an official U.S. Department of Defense website, Kinkade said of his work: “The world I paint, I think it’s very affirming of the beliefs of people in this country and of the service people who are overseas waging a war to protect those beliefs.” An interesting statement, particularly in light of the latest polls conducted by FOX News, the Associated Press, CNN, USA Today and Gallup, all showing a majority of Americans in opposition to the war in Iraq. Without a doubt, Thomas Kinkade’s paintings are to art, what George Bush’s imperial fumblings are to statecraft.

Iraq’s Museums: Four Years Later

This month, Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage internationally, helped to organize a worldwide candlelight vigil to draw attention to the four year anniversary of the systematic looting and destruction of Iraq’s museums.

U.S. Marines seized Baghdad in the early days of April, 2003. While U.S. troops surrounded and protected Iraq’s National Ministry of Oil immediately after capturing Baghdad, they left numerous cultural institutions in the Iraqi capital completely unprotected from looters, who rampaged through the city like a devastating whirlwind. Iraq’s National Library was burned to the ground, destroying thousands of irreplaceable books and manuscripts. The ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum of Baghdad started on April 9th, 2003, and for three days a mob stole or shattered everything in sight. Over 15,000 irreplaceable works of art, many from the dawn of civilization, were stolen. Not a single U.S. military patrol attempted to stop the pillaging. The Bush administration’s response to the looting came from Donald Rumsfeld, who infamously said, “Stuff happens.”

After the devastation of the Second World War, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted in May, 1954. States agreeing to the Convention, promised to “safeguard and respect cultural property during both international and non-international armed conflicts.” As a signatory to the Convention, the U.S. failed miserably in its obligations to Iraq and world cultural heritage, and it continues to do so.

In order to commemorate the destruction of Iraq’s museums, and to draw attention to the ongoing looting of that country’s archeological sites, SAFE called for candlelight vigils to take place internationally on April 10-12, 2007. Vigils were held in cities across the United States and the world, from Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California, to London, England, and Toronto, Canada. The most moving observance however took place amidst the violence of Baghdad at the sacked National Museum, where dozens of courageous employees and art lovers braved the mayhem to make their point.

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna was the Director of the National Museum at the time of its trashing, and in large part through his work, nearly half of the stolen Mesopotamian artworks have been recovered. However, George paid a price for his efforts. The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities came under the control of a Shiite party affiliated to Moktada al-Sadr, and George’s work was continually hindered and blocked. Aside from the difficulties of working with the U.S. backed government, the final straw came when George received a death threat letter aimed at his 17-year-old son. As a high-profile government official, a Christian, and a man seen frequently in western media, George had become a target to many of Iraq’s growing armed factions. In September of 2006 George resigned his position and fled with his family to Syria. Good fortune smiled on George when in the Fall of 2006, New York’s Stony Brook University appointed him a visiting professor in the university’s distinguished Anthropology department.

On the Saving Antiquities for Everyone website, you can read more about the international candlelight vigil, listen to a 38 minute interview with Donny George, and join SAFE in its endeavor to protect world cultural heritage.

Art Book: Yo! What Happened to Peace?

Yo! What Happened to Peace?, was an exhibition of hand-made prints in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The brainchild of L.A. based artist John Carr, the exhibit had its beginnings in 2002 during the run-up to war in Iraq. Being a print-maker, Carr wanted to put together a traveling exhibit that was not only a political expression, but a celebration of the fine art of printmaking.

Instead of machine printed reproductions, the “Yo!” show consists entirely of handcrafted prints - silkscreens, lithographs, linocuts, woodcuts and stencils. The collection is a striking example of contemporary political poster making, and I’m happy to have four of my early prints in the exhibition.

Silkscreen print by Mark Vallen, 1991

[ New World Odor - Mark Vallen. Silkscreen. 23" x 29" Printed in 1991 as a street poster in opposition to the first U.S. war with Iraq. The print was inspired by the traditional iconography of Mexico's Dia de los Muertos celebrations. ]

Past showings were held in Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, Milan, Rejkyavik, Washington D.C., Boston and Chicago. On April 14th, 2007, Yo! What Happened to Peace?, opened at the House of Love and Dissent in Rome, Italy. The opening was also the launch for the exceptional catalog book that documented the traveling exhibition. You can preview the Rome exhibit here, as well as view a number of prints from the exhibition and its catalog.

Print by Artemio Rodriguez

[ Galloping Death: Stop Mad Cowboy Disease! - Artemio Rodriguez. Silkscreen based on a linoleum block print. Born in Mexico, Rodriguez now lives and works in Los Angeles, where he founded La Mano Press, an artist-run shop dedicated to printmaking. ]

Edited by John Carr, the “Yo!” book features a unique embossed stencil cover, and reproductions of the 220 plus handcrafted anti-war and pro-peace prints by some 120 artists that have come to define the touring poster exhibition.

Print by Noah Breuer

[ Blood On Our Hands - Noah Breuer. Woodblock print. Breuer is a printmaker from Berkeley, California, now living in New York City and managing Columbia University’s student print shop. ]