In the 1960s, the baby boom generation was conscripted into a war in Southeast Asia that turned out to be as unnecessary as it was futile. In the early 1980s, some of those who served, especially artists who had seen combat, realized that they had unfinished business. Coming mostly from blue-collar backgrounds in small towns or inner-city neighborhoods, they had something to say about experiences that most Americans only knew as Hollywood entertainment. Exhibitions were organized to tour the country and eventually a national museum was established here in Chicago. One of the founders of that movement was Charlie Shobe (1940-2011), a Marine lieutenant from Petersburg, West Virginia. Shobe wrote, “My paintings are of the horror show that was Vietnam: butchery carried out for politicians, bureaucrats, and ambitious generals whose egos would not let them say ‘enough’; art for an indifferent public; art to honor those who lived and died there, and earned only a few hundred dollars a month. It would take a lifetime to paint it all.” And that’s what he did in the 1980s and nineties—not the romantic memorials that celebrate victory, but how it felt to have boots on the ground, and meditations on that ultimate insult to the invulnerability of youth: sudden and violent death.
Of the twenty-nine paintings on display, seven include skulls of one kind or another. Then Shobe moved on to depict the peaceful life he had achieved with images of a more dreamy, sugary, high-chroma world of ripe fruit, autumn trees and happy people. Though trained at the Corcoran College of Art, and employed as an art teacher in public schools, his work is peripheral to the concerns of contemporary art, either academic, commercial or even outsider. But according to one theory about the origins of art, large game animals were depicted in dark, prehistoric caves in order to initiate young people into the threatening world of adults, and that’s the kind of initiation that Shobe and the other ‘Nam vet artists are still offering. Unfortunately, their museum is shrinking. What used to be an entire building is now the third floor, and soon they won’t even have that, but wherever they end up, they will still be telling an important story about life, death and history to a world that is so much more interested in super-hero fantasy, and to an art world that is much more interested in itself. (Chris Miller)
Through August 1 at the National Veterans Art Museum, 1801 South Indiana.
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