If one had to guess what kind of art resides in a recently opened Brooklyn gallery, a somber celebration of wounded U.S. soldiers would probably not come to mind. But Bushwick is full of surprises, and one is a new exhibition of drawings from the Joe Bonham Project, which chronicles the experiences of wounded American soldiers, curated by James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion.
The Joe Bonham Project, founded earlier this year by former Marine chief warrant officer and combat artist Michael Fay, is named after the protagonist of the novel Johnny Got His Gun, a World War I veteran who is so grievously wounded that he can no longer communicate. The project aims to ensure that recent U.S. veterans will not suffer Bonham’s fate, and has gathered a wide range of talented artists, from servicemen like LCpl. Robert Bates to National Review’s own cartoonist, Roman Genn.
While the artists have diverse styles, almost all of their work depicts injured U.S. soldiers in the process of recovery — sometimes posing for the artist, sometimes in treatment, sometimes in physical therapy. The natural medium of drawing set inside the formal environment of a gallery gives a sense of both the scale of soldiers’ suffering and their perseverance in recovery. The drawings depict soldiers “in transition” as the gallery’s director Jason Andrew emphasized, in a way that no cold photograph can. Further, the drawings attempt, successfully, to convey a connection between the artist and the soldier: As Andrew notes, with a photograph, “you cannot get to know your subject . . . there’s something between you and the subject,” whereas the artists of the Joe Bonham Project develop deep connections with the soldiers they depict. Andrew noted that it was heroic of the soldiers shown “to say, ‘come and document my life,’” especially given the “sense of honor and reserve” typical of the military.
One artist with a particularly deep understanding of this connection is Robert Bates, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. He explained that the experience of visiting military hospitals and depicting wounded servicemen was hardly easy, but the connection was aided by the knowledge that Bates, in his words, “almost became a statistic [himself],” having survived an IED attack in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most moving examples of Bates’s work are the drawings of Sgt. Than Naing of the Marine Corps.
Naing, a Burmese immigrant, enlisted in the Marines in reaction to 9/11. On his second tour in Iraq, while manning an automatic grenade launcher in Fallujah, he was hit in the shoulder by a sniper. After 18 months back in the United States, recovering and rehabilitating his shoulder, he returned to combat as a non-commissioned officer. He was deployed to Helmand Province in 2010, where he was again wounded, this time by a Taliban machine gun, with one round passing all the way through his chest. Sgt. Naing is now currently training in the hopes of returning to combat for a third time — in Leatherneck magazine, Captain Dennis Nichols, of Wounded Warrior Battalion-East, called Naing’s example “extremely rare and very inspiring.”
Bates wrote detailed descriptions of Naing’s experiences and wounds on the drawings themselves, a feature common throughout many of the Joe Bonham works. Besides offering explanations of the soldiers’ harrowing experiences, the writing gives the art a unique character. Bates notes that his work is “a different kind of art. It’s a reporter’s art; it’s artifact art.” The drawings reveal the soldiers’ humanity, but the text reminds the viewer of the military context, ordered and disciplined, as if a commanding officer had decided to combine his incident report with a striking depiction of the human results.
Given the timing of the exhibition around 9/11, and the longstanding controversy over the merits and costs of the Iraq War, one might worry that the exhibit could easily be politicized — either using the suffering of American soldiers to decry war or exploiting their heroism in defense of jingoism. This is emphatically not the case, however, thanks to deep appreciation of the soldiers by the artists and others involved with the project, and the realism of the drawings. The exhibition reminds the viewer of both the human horrors of war and the heroic virtue soldiers evince.
The exhibition is open from 1–6 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, its final two days, at Storefront (16 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn). It is well worth a trip, especially around the anniversary of 9/11, to reflect on our heroes and their sacrifices in the name of freedom.
Work by LCpl. Robert Bates