The unobserved war 

Steve Mumford paints into the zone

If Vietnam was the photojournalist's war, then Iraq is the videographer's. Soldiers carry cameras and the new dominance of reality TV has given the public an insatiable thirst for documentary reality. We are bombarded with images on the nightly news of the conflict.

But the question worth asking is whether the escalation in imagery seen of the Iraq war has better informed us about what is really going on, or merely desensitized us? Perhaps more imagery simply enhances a sense of confusion and disorientation, blinding us in the fog of war.

Forty-six-year-old New York City artist Steve Mumford's artwork defies that deluge of the quick scroll, the sound bite, the nightly news video maelstrom. Mumford traveled on four occasions to Iraq beginning in April 2003, spending a total of 11 months, off and on, as an embedded artist in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. He posted some of his dispatches on the online art journal artnet and created art based on his experiences there, a selection of which will appear locally at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

If Mumford has an agenda, which he is reluctant to present as such, it is to step back and record the diurnal, subjective and sensory elements of war from within the frantic blitzkrieg of our usual hyped-up, superficial reportage.

There is an eerie calm at the heart of Mumford's watercolors and ink drawings, and his large-scale paintings. Unlike movie images of war, full of cataclysm and movement, there is only waiting and a pregnant hesitation. The ellipses between battle rather than the grand cataclysms are Mumford's contribution to what we think we know about war.

"Drawing is a much slower process, so what I was interested in was capturing those slower moments," Mumford says. "Ninety percent of the time in Iraq the soldiers are just standing around."

In Mumford's images, soldiers wait in the cool shade of a building, guns at the ready for some unseen figure to pass down the sunny street.

Children scramble for candy at the perimeter of an American Humvee. Daily life unfolds at Iraqi cafes and markets.

But there are more pointed images, too, of a memorial for a fallen American soldier and another of hooded "Suspects" captured by the American military.

Although still founded on stasis and calm, it is in a later body of work that Mumford's documentation becomes laced with dramatic profundity.

After leaving Iraq in October 2004, Mumford says "I wanted to maintain contact with the Iraq war although I wasn't going back."

And so he began drawing soldiers recovering from their injuries at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.

Like his war-zone work, its meaning ultimately depending upon the viewer's perspective, his images of war-maimed soldiers feel like Rorschach tests.

Depending upon your sensibility, the images of men with paralyzed or missing limbs waiting patiently on exercise mats or staring off into space are haunting or affirmative. An illustration of the horrors of war. Or proof that any trial can be overcome.

To Mumford, the images show the resilience and endurance of the injured soldiers, such as the one, pausing on an exercise bike, who has wrapped an American flag bandana around one of his stumps.

"I wanted to capture ... that some part of their camaraderie and their spirit hadn't dimmed in spite of their wounds. I make my stuff and put it out there and then it, in a way, has a life of its own," Mumford says of work that has incensed and inspired critics on both sides of the political spectrum. "I think that's part of the ambivalence and ambiguity of war. It attracts us as human beings, and especially as men and yet it can have devastating and lifelong consequences."

Steve Mumford will be in attendance at an opening reception at the gallery on Thurs., Jan. 18, 6-8 p.m.


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