Saturday, September 18, 2010

War: Missing in Action? An interactive installation at Merge Gallery

The United States has been at war for nine years. But, while our tax dollars have poured into Afghanistan and Iraq and our young men and women have fought and died, for the most part, our attention has been elsewhere. I don’t believe Americans typically think about being at war on a regular basis. The evidence doesn’t support such a conclusion. Unless you have a family member or friend in the military (which I don’t), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rarely intrude on our daily lives. They show up in the news with some regularity, of course, but these are wars interrupted by commercial messages—often overshadowed by commercial messages.

Along with the general public, artists largely go on about their business despite the ongoing wars. This is true of my own art work, although I try to keep abreast of world events. However, it is emphatically not true of the two artists who collaborate on an installation at Merge Gallery in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. It is called War: Humanity in the Crosshairs. Although the show has been up since the Fourth of July—no coincidence—I just got around to seeing it last weekend. Merge occupies a small space tucked away in a second-floor corner of the Marshall Building. The walls are rough bare brick. It’s a good setting for the stark, often rough images that surround you as you enter. Rows of what appear to be heavy caliber bullets (they are really metal pressure valves) are hung from the ceiling, creating an immersive experience; one must weave around them to see the work. It is immediately clear that this is not going to be standard art gallery fare.

War: Humanity in the Crosshairs is a collaborative installation by gallery owners Valerie J. Christell and Tori Tasch. They work separately in a variety of media, but their individual contributions complement each other beautifully and create a powerful and engaging combination.

This image from the installation pairs Christell’s “Residual Pain/Mines” (top) with Tasch’s image of a World War II era pin-up girl surrounded by the scrawled musings of sailors. The latter was inspired by the artist’s recent visit to the USS Bowfin, of WWII vintage. Christell’s work relates to the current conflict and sometimes incorporates photographs taken in Afghanistan by her son. Of this and similar pairings Christell says “the similarity between the gestures of sex and death is powerful.” It is indeed and so is the total effect of the installation, which has provoked many “thoughtful conversations.” I am not surprised. Art can—and should—serve many functions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, its function as the conscience of the culture seems to have gone out of fashion. But at what cost? The Merge installation seems to have tapped into an unsated hunger. Christell shared this observation: “Over and over I hear [from visitors] that, in spite of how tough the images/concepts are, this is needed.” I agree and I applaud Merge for providing it.

The mission of Merge Gallery is “to broaden audience awareness of social issues through the blending of artistic viewpoints.” Christell and Tasch plan to present a new theme related to contemporary issues and current events every three months. I for one look forward to the next installation. We need a venue for art that tackles the tough issues.

War: Humanity in the Crosshairs will be on display through October 2. Merge is located at 207 E. Buffalo St, Suite 204. Hours are noon – 4 pm Fridays and Saturdays.

You can see more images from the show at Valerie Christell’s website.

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