A Collective Representation of the American Experience of War

Posted by Matt Mitchell, May 17, 2013 0 comments

Matt Mitchell Matt Mitchell

Since the spring of 2005 I have been working on a project entitled “100 Faces of War Experience: Portraits and Words of Americans Who Served in Iraq and Afghanistan”. In some ways this work can be seen as a memorial, yet it differs from a traditional memorial in a key aspect. Most, if not all, American war memorials are built around an official representation of the American experience of war or a vision of that experience decided upon beforehand by an artist. The 100 Faces project is, instead, an experiment in self representation by people who gone from America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When complete the 100 Faces project will consist of one hundred painted portraits of, and statements by, Americans who have gone to the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The paintings are done in a traditional portrait style and show the person’s head and shoulders at life size. Each painting is started from life in a meeting between the artist and the person pictured.

The statements that accompany each portrait are the place where self representation enters the picture. These statements are chosen by the person pictured and are not edited or censored. Every effort is made to make sure that the participants in the project know they have complete freedom of speech. The only restrictions on these statements are that they be no more than 250 words and that each person must make their statement in some way different from all of those that have come before them.  In this way the project becomes more than a series of individual accounts, it becomes a complex collective narrative of the American experience of these wars. Even though all of the portraits and statements look independent when hanging on the wall, the entire group is meant to be kept together as a single unit in order to preserve this narrative.

You can see the on line exhibition by clicking here.

The people selected for the project are chosen for their ability to represent both the typical demographics of the American experience of these wars as well a wide range of diverse experiences and backgrounds. People are involved not based on what they might say, but based upon how they can fill out a kind of total picture of the American experience through their role and background.

In order to learn how to best represent the demographics of the American involvement I enlisted the aid of Sociologist, Dr. Daniel Burland in 2009. We developed a selection criteria involving ten dynamics. To select each person in the project I consider aspects of their experience that include: role in country, race, gender, rank (if military), branch of service (if military), location, and dates in country. In a break with the traditional memorial, American civilians who went to the war zones are also included because this aspect of the American involvement is an important and often overlooked. The civilian Americans pictured range from a peace activist to a paramilitary contractor. At least one person from each of the 50 states will also be included. Despite our efforts to find the best available demographics, the wars have been on going, so the demographics can, in the end, only be a best guess. The project will end with the participation of one of the last people to return from Afghanistan, expected to take place in 2014.

Jeff Dale and his portrait Jeff Dale and his portrait

With the demographics of the project I did make some choices that are based more on an artistic sensibility than upon pure statistics. I have chosen to represent ten injured people and ten mortalities. These numbers are not accurate in a statistical sense, but I felt it was important to do this.  For the posthumous portraits I speak with the family to try to understand how to represent their loved one and the family chooses the words that accompany the portrait.

When the 100 Faces project is complete the aim is to tour the project around the country as an exhibition, making it available to a wide public and searching for the best permanent home for the work.

The project is a work in progress. As I write this I am glancing up from my computer to the three portraits I am currently working on. Portraits 68, 69 and 70. Jeff Dale, Lawreece Fluellen, and Chris Johnson. Each of them visited the studio over these past few weeks, and their visits stay in my mind as I continue to struggle to represent their likenesses. Each portrait takes 40 to 80 hours of painting time.

Jeff, Lawreece, and Chris have provided their statements. In each case, when I received their words, I was deeply impressed with how they took the narrative to a new level of sophistication and emotional power. My work on this project makes me wonder if this is an innate human ability.

The 100 Faces project differs from the traditional memorial in that it is not an official representation of war and it is not a representation of war as imagined by an artist.

Instead the project is an experiment with democratic ideals. What happens if you give a selected population a platform to speak freely and as equals? The 100 Faces project takes this practice and applies it to the American experience the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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