Friday, March 6, 2009

REVIEW: COMBAT PAPER at The Firehouse Gallery in Burlington VT

By Sharon Webster

“That’s pretty,” Drew Cameron says as he scoops a bit of combat uniform, red thread, & scrap of paper with the Constitution written on it from the bubbling vat of paper mash. His hands move the way someone’s might move through bread dough, intuitively. Boiled down to abstraction the globs are indeed pretty and rest comfortably in a person’s hand. Then he throws it up to the ceiling where it sticks – a way of sifting imperfections from the mash, I’m told.
The Combat Paper Project, currently at the Firehouse Gallery, is made up of a growing number Iraq Veteran artists who beat their uniforms to a pulp – literally – and then turn them into striking and stirring visual artworks and books. They have set up shop at the Firehouse Gallery on 135
 Church St., where they will work and invite the public to join them in the process until April 11, 09.Since it’s a working paper-making shop, the first thing you see is the machinery. The gallery/studio is authentically ooey gooey and get-down dirty. Pools of water from draining paper collect on floor. Clunky apparatuses abound. But there is a Renaissance feeling to the place as well. Intellectual tools are assembled beside the mechanical ones, and many disciplines coexist easily. Poems, musings, letters are tacked to the wall. Stacks of favorite books, souvenirs from a shared surreal past are given space in the gallery, including jarringly clear reports from the other side of the globe. Most interesting are the inner travels & the visual vestiges of those travels. They acknowledges painful realities, move through & inside of it, ever widening the vision. With this art, seeing is transforming.
A few specifics: Jon Turner’s dog tag pieces have poetic elegance and an arresting presence. Leaving a stirring amount of negative space, he uses the tags as stencils for spattered red pigment with restraint and sophistication In Eli Wright’s Open Wound series, the gaping holes in the paper are as meaningful as their deep blood color. A collection of deftly rendered black and white portraits by John LaSalce portrays a group of soldiers united by their experience after different tours. “Our Tours Were Different, Now Our Work Is Together.”
Many of the largest works get their color through pulp “paint,“ and of course, their texture. The texture being the signature trait here - grainy and gnarly as the desert sand.
Combat Paper is important because it assures that people cannot look the other way from the reality of war. It blurs the lines between art, activism, politics. It is also clear that the truths told in these art works are not just military truths, but human truths. Painfully, plenty of people who have never been to war have experienced traumas that embattle them every day. A strength of this art movement (I say movement, not show, because I know that they’re not done yet) is how single-mindedly they chase after the fissures…& identify artistically the threads that can heal.

My Introduction to Studio Art class participated in a papermaking workshop recently. The experience was rich and complex. “Is that real Iraqi money?!” queried a student on seeing a piece embedded with Saddam heads and Arabic writing. Yes. Not only were there new artistic skills to absorb, but culttural and political relevancies to consider too. Combat Paper also does poetry readings and powerful performance art. A performance to culminate their Firehouse gig is scheduled for March 28 at 1-4pm. The Iraq Vets Against the War, have published two Warrior Writers volumes of poetry: Move, Shoot and Communicat
e, and Remaking Sense. Both are available on the website & elsewhere.
Jon Turner could have been one of those performances on the day of our visit. With monk-like concentration he pulled a stitch through the pages of a handmade book with unwavering precision, oblivious of the roomful of excited young people. In spite of bubbling activity, a quiet but tangible work ethic pervaded the space. On the walls, a common vein of passion united the show; the creative process courted here without censorship. The artists, too, are united by that passion & fellowship. A look at their commitment and how prolific they have been suggests it is a policy that other “regular” artists might emulate. The images seen in this zine are just a few. Go to Combat Paper’s beautiful website for some more. But go to the Firehouse for the Feel! Cameron says he’s happy with the amount of foot traffic Combat Paper is getting in the busy, urban hub on Church Street. “It’s amazing how many people stumble in who have no idea how paper is made,“ he says. Stumble in and see for yourself!