Fabric of War at Phoenix

Published on Culture 24

Fabric of War, Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, until August 16 2009

Ex-serviceman Mike Blake has ripped up several US flags, shredded a handful of dollar bills and even gone so far as to cut up and pulp his military uniform. The reconstituted garments now form the canvas for his anti-war picture Vortex. Green flecks of currency swirl amidst tattered stars and stripes in an explosion of outrage at the role he was made to play in Iraq.

Blake is a member of the Combat Paper Project, an American organisation which helps war veterans come to terms with their experiences by making art from their uniforms. Camo gear is cooked and macerated to make sheets of paper which are used for artworks, journals and papier-mâché.

Judging by the works on display at the Phoenix, this is a process filled with catharsis. Eli Wright has made a piece called Broken Soldiers in which sheets of grey paper are stitched together like the edges of a wound. Across them is printed a declaration to destroy the symbols of war and “make them beautiful.”

Another example is Ecology, where Drew Cameron has blended soft grey army issue cloth with the remnants of his country’s flag. The result could be a peaceful landscape, a battlefield reclaimed by nature. Or more likely it is abstract, like Cameron’s Flak Jackets, in which the uniform dissolves, losing meaning.

Many of the soldiers-turned-artists suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An entry in a recycled journal  vows over and over again that the author, a man called Robyn, will never use a gun again. In just six lines it brings home the horror of armed conflict and something of the redemptive nature of the Project’s work.

Also on display are works from the Monument series by Marshall Weber. These are colourful rubbings and collages taken from war memorials all around the world. Much like the uniforms, these sombre engravings have here been chopped up and reconfigured. The effect is of a confusion, an inability to make sense of war.

It’s a show that as many people as possible should see.

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