Two local artists depict the toll of battle in a new exhibit at Sea Breeze
By Jenny Lower 01/17/2008
It is one of seven new paintings the Ojai artist will be showcasing alongside work by sculptor John Diehl in their exhibit, "War Stories," running Jan.17 through Feb. 23 at the Sea Breeze Art Gallery in Ventura. An open reception for the public will take place Jan. 19 from 6 to 9 p.m. with live music performed by Julie Christensen.
Gray, whose work has been previously displayed in exhibits on both coasts, says she was inspired by the war in Iraq and stories shared by colleagues of her ex-husband, a Vietnam veteran who entered treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 40 years after his service ended. The paintings, whose titles include "Going Home" and "Weather's Fine, Wish You Were Here," address the physically and psychologically devastating effects of war for both the veterans and their families.
The subject matter marks a departure for Gray, whose lifelong depression had previously driven her to depict uplifting images as a form of self-therapy. But after an exhibit last year themed around alcoholism and addiction caused one attendee to start crying and admit they needed help, she realized the impact her work could have on larger issues.
Despite that opportunity, she says, "It's a very hard place to live, to be that dark and to touch that soft spot of humanity - to be the one that confronts people with a feeling they won't necessarily want to feel."
That fear may be unfounded, however. Already, Gray has been contacted by individuals eager to hold political focus groups, and veteran and civilian survivors wanting to share their stories. She is considering hosting and filming a forum for the latter during the course of the exhibit.
For John Diehl, an actor whose "first love was visual art," the theme of "War Stories" has personal relevance. He was 18 and working in a hospital without a student deferment in 1969. He remembers catching snatches of the draft lottery on TV in between helping patients to the bathroom. The first 200 numbers drawn were virtually guaranteed to go to Vietnam. In the end, his number came out 327th - and Diehl breathed a sigh of relief. But he knows others were not so lucky.
Diehl has spent his career depicting such characters, individuals he says "are usually pretty damaged goods." In one of his recent projects, a 2004 film called Land of Plenty with Michelle Williams, he plays a paranoid Vietnam veteran tracking neighborhood "terrorists" with surveillance equipment in his van.
Diehl's pieces reveal a current of anger at these unrecorded casualties. In one, "Money Trumps Peace," a rectangular coffin painted with an American flag houses a bloodied corpse wearing a peace sign. Behind the red and white stripes, the shadows of dollar bills are just barely visible.
The title was taken from a press conference held by President Bush in which he responded to a question about the United States' ability to persuade Iran's European trading partners to leverage economic sanctions against it by saying, "Let me put it this way: Money trumps peace sometimes."
For Gray, the creative process became a way to identify with the struggles American veterans face upon their return.
"In going into these dark feelings," she says, "you realize how much you don't want to live there. And we ask [soldiers] to go [to Iraq] and be in this dark place for two years at a time and then ask them to go back again, or they come back and we say, ‘You have no problems.' What kind of crazy-maker is that?"
Despite her frustration at the current situation, however, Gray says she strove for objectivity, a choice she hopes will spark dialogue.
"I try not to have an opinion before I start painting. I let the painting inform itself. That's why [the exhibit is] called ‘War Stories' - it's just stories," she says. "It's painting the picture, putting it up there to see, and hoping that it creates a discussion or a thought in somebody's head that wouldn't necessarily be there."
Sea Breeze Art Gallery is located at 255 S. Laurel St., Ventura, 643-3973. The gallery is open from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 12 to 8 p.m. Friday and 12 to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit www.seabreezeartgallery.com.