Amherst artist Matt Mitchell took nine years to complete a hundred oil portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. A sociologist helped him find a representative sample according to gender, race, age, service branch, rank and home state. Thus, each picture represents 25,000 personnel. Here are pictures of hapless teen enlistees, nurses, career soldiers, administrators and even some casualties. The diverse faces of these citizen-soldiers peer out, some proudly, others barely concealing their psychic wounds. Mitchell aimed to conclude the project by the official end of hostilities in Afghanistan. About the more or less continuous war since 9/11, one veteran observes wryly, “It only took four years to win WWII.” Working from photos Mitchell himself took during interviews with his sitters, the life-size portraits are identical in scale and treatment. A pathetic beauty emerges from the rosy faces and detailed clothing, all rendered in an old masters technique. They need to be seen in person for they do not reproduce well.
Each veteran provided a limit of 250 words about their war experience, and this testimony appears below each painting. Some describe their time as hellish, others as rewarding. All regard it as transformative. Look for the captain who loved his troops too much, the terribly burned young man, the “psychonaut” and the wide-ranging reflections from women soldiers who are admirably represented here. Indeed, the texts are as penetrating as the images. But paired with the paintings, the results are devastating. As one young woman veteran reminds herself (and us, too), “It is okay to cry in public.”
Altogether, this is unquestionably one of the great artistic statements about America’s wars, and one day it will doubtless be housed in a Washington museum. So viewers should try to see it in this Chicago venue, the first time it has been presented in its entirety. And for those who have never visited the NVAM, now is the time to go. The abject genuineness of this project—portraits paired with the sitters’ own words as a catalyst for contemplating the nature of war—is as much as we can expect of art. (Mark Pohlad)
Through May 1 at the National Veterans Art Museum, 4041 North Milwaukee