Rita Bard "War Paintings"
exhibition at Box Gallery, Santa Fe, NM

Harmony Hammond

Art Matters, for the Journal

Rita Bard's "War Paintings," currently on exhibit at Box Gallery in collaboration with LAUNCHPROJECTS, are a departure of her usual work. The acrylic-on-canvas war paintings, based on photographs she found in World War II photography books, are Bard's attempt to come to terms with moral dilemmas raised for individuals in times of war.
Bard has not directly lived through a war but has been deeply affected by her parent's experiences. Her mother, a German university student when Hitler was coming to power and World War II broke out, and her father, a young American infantryman who faught in North Africa, Germany and Italy, met at the end of the war, married and moved to the United States. Bard writes that "... my parents never emotionally recovered from the war. ... I heard many stories and comments from both parents about their personal experiences in the war and the discussion about why the war happened. World War II was part of my life."
The photographs Bard has chosen to work from are not classic war images (sensationalizing war, glorifying the life of the soldier, emphasizing patriotic heroism, etc.) or all-to-familiar media images of death, rape, torture and bombing, but rather "pictures" of anonymus citizens and soldiers. The paintings are not about specific individuals – indeed, most of Bard's figures are faceless or their faces are covered – nor are they just about World War II: hence, details of national uniforms, insiginia, weaponry or architecture are minimal. She translates the black-and-white photographic images into a murky palette of grays, browns and yellow with red handprinted writing detailing date, place and factual description of the action or event depicted in the photograph – a reminder that these were real people and real events that took place.
"Endgame (1941)," the most clearly photo-based of all the paintings, portrays a woman in hat and coat with two uniformed men. Words on red around the painting's edges matter-of-factly state: "A RUSSION WOMAN IS LED AWAY FOR EXECUTION AFTER HER CAPTURE BY THE SS 1941."
In "Watch (1941)," umber silhouettes of armed soldiers in the foreground turn toward a distant target and yellow sky. The red text reads: "ITALIAN TROUPS INVADE YUGOSLAVIA 1941."
"End of the Line (1945)" depicts an apparitional figure with arms up in a central open space within the abstract painting field. It is not clear if the surrendering figure is facing forwards or backwards, but a faint large face looks out from under layers of paint at the figure (and the viewer). Two arcs of hard-to-read red words float above the "clearing." The top arc reads: "GUILTY OF COLLABORATION WITH..." and then trails off so that the last word is unreadable. The lower arc reads backwards: "A FIRING SQUAD IN GRENOBLE." The spatial positioning of the face, figure and viewer and reverse writing introduce the possibility of multiple points of view.
"Unknown POW," a more recent painting, does not include text. A lone soldier painted in loose brush strokes sits removed from any environmental context, looking down with his eyes buried in his hand. Weary? Exhausted? Thinking? Remembering? Giving Up? Without the painted caption, we are left to fill in the narrative. Feeling is evoked through the paint and painted image.
Bard says that for her parents who lived through WWII, surviving required conscious and unconscious choices. The paintings are not about right or wrong, but rather those decisions made by individuals under the extreme circumstances of war. She asks: "How do an executioner, a sympathizer, a prisoner, a guard, a citizen feel? How does each justify the role they play?" What would she have done under the same circumstances? Would she have followed orders? Marched in line? Told on a neighbor? Where are her moral boundaries? Would she do "anything" to survive? The tiny painting "Surrender" asks "how do you know the truth when you can't imagine the facts?"
These are the questions that Bard struggles with. They are important questions: however, they don't come across in the paintings. There seems to be some specific thing or things that happened or didn't happen in her parents' lives that remain unstated and unresolved, buried under the paint. Consequently, the issues Bard is wrestling with aren't conveyed in the paintings.
I like the paintings, but they stop short of accessible meaning. As is, despite Bard's intentions, they don't tell us anything about how war impacts the lives of individuals or how collective memory might be different from "history." That said, I find the war paintings full of potential – far more engaging and substantial than Bard's decorative work, a lite postmodern mix of pattern and animal forms. I'm wondering how the two bodies of work with their different content and aesthetics (cultural memory and popular visual culture), might read in juxtaposition, side by side within the same work of art, reflecting the worlds that Bard negotiates in her daily life. Just a thought.

If you go:
WHAT: Rita Bard: "War Paintings"
WHERE: Box Gallery, 1611 A Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM
WHEN: Through May 1, 2010

Women Fleeing - Rita Bard - acrylic on canvas - war series