Embedded artist: with a suite of watercolor and ink drawings and a series of on-line dispatches, New York painter Steve Mumford chronicles military and civilian life in U.S.-occupied Iraq - Reportage
Art in America, Feb, 2004 by Marcia E. Vetrocq
From Oct. 23 to Nov. 22, 2003, at Postmasters Gallery in New York: Steve Mumford exhibited 43 watercolor and sepia drawings, roughly one-quarter of the number he produced between April and October in the course of two trips to Iraq. Mumford visited Basra, Baghdad, Tikrit, Samarra, Karbala, Kirkuk, Dohuk and Hilla, traveling between the cities as an embedded journalist credentialed by Artnet.com, the on-line magazine whose reporters typically brave nothing more perilous than an overcrowded Venice Biennale vernissage. On Aug. 18, Mumford posted on Artnet.com the first of what would be six installments of "Baghdad Journal," a diaristic account of his time in Iraq, the margins of which were illustrated with thumbnails of the drawings. The journal prompted widespread chatter among bloggers. Facts and phrases from Mumford's entries cropped up in the brief, discursive captions that accompanied each drawing on display at the gallery.
The arresting jolt delivered by the exhibition may be attributable to the paradox of encountering work in Chelsea that is at once exquisitely timely and patently anachronistic. Mumford arrived in U.S.-occupied Iraq armed with the drafting tools of Robert Adam in Pompeii, John Ruskin in Venice and, as Mumford points out, Winslow Homer in Virginia. (1) As an artist-correspondent for Harper's Weekly, Homer was assigned to sketch the Civil War around the same time that Mathew Brady was establishing photography as the new medium of record. Now that photographic veracity has been discredited--even the Brady pictures are known to have been styled through the expressive rearrangement of soldiers' corpses--the eyewitness drawing from a remote trouble spot, not unlike the work of a courtroom sketch artist, seems to premise some old-fashioned individual probity and candor.
Mumford, who spent a year in the early 1980s making drawings along the Amazon, is a lively and assured draftsman. Some of the Iraq images were executed on the spot; to develop more complex compositions and nocturnal scenes, he worked from his own snapshots. A productive day might yield six to eight drawings. The results include full-spectrum watercolors, like Sunset over Kirkuk, May 3 and Entrance to Baghdad National Museum, May 10, whose polychromed dome and slender columns evoke the Orientalist flavor of Grand Tour souvenirs. Brown or black sepia monochrome serves to convey the color-leaching gloom enveloping a night patrol as well the hot sun bleaching a line of cars at a gas station. Curls of razor wire make for linear flourishes; a calm expanse of untouched paper surrounds a napping soldier; an offbeat beauty is found in a Pool of Oil, 299 Engineers Battalion, Tikrit, Oct. 4. Sketchbook-size and gracefully rendered, hung at eye level in a nonchronological room-wrapping line, the drawings seemed more like a considered catalogue of drafting techniques and narrative approaches than a sequence of graphic dispatches from a war-torn country.
It's safe to say that since the 1960s, in New York at least, "war" art has been antiwar art. But viewers expecting to find sentiment against the American occupation of Iraq in Mumford's series were disappointed--and this, too, may have contributed to the surprise of the work. On the wider issue of the justness of the war itself, Mumford remains resolutely noncommittal, a position which, according to one's point of view, might be read as objectivity or obliviousness. The worst of the conflict remains outside the margins, as the drawings make only indirect references to violence and its aftermath: Shi'ites--victims of Saddam's persecution--observe the excavation of a mass grave; soldiers pause at the sound of an AK-47 round; visitors take tea in the shady courtyard of an art gallery that subsequently felt the effects of a nearby bombing; GIs attach explosives to captured Iraqi missiles and raid a ring of counterfeiters.
Numerous drawings convey the routine of base life, the waiting, a TV "permanently" set on ESPN, a debate about the appropriateness of displaying girlie pin-ups. Often the anecdotal trumps what might be considered the bigger picture. For example, the facility pictured in North Oil Company Refinery, Kirkuk, May 1 is of interest to Mumford for the fierce stray dogs that have joined the soldiers in protecting it, not because it figures in the controversial reconstruction contract offered to Halliburton. The only subversive detail, and it might be inadvertent, occurs in the title of the drawing Spc. Jose Fuentes Watching Three Kings While Spc. Amanda Lusk Sleeps, Samarra, Oct. 8--and even here, the caption focuses on the "dorm-like" feeling caused by the presence of women and says nothing about the irony of a soldier spending his downtime with David O. Russell's acidly funny 1999 send-up of American ineptitude and venality during the first Gulf War.
Another recurring theme is art-making itself, and only in the captions to these drawings did Mumford voice Iris own feelings: he was peevish when a swarm of Kurdish kids pestered him into abandoning a scene; he regrets his rudeness to two Iraqi gentlemen who watched him at work; he shared a moment of mutual interest with an Iraqi artist who was painting the flamboyant crest of the Second Cavalry Squadron. The final Artnet.com journal entry, posted on Nov. 11, is not about military matters but rather is a round-up of the Baghdad art scene illustrated with works by Iraqis. Add to that the liberal inclusion in the show of genre scenes (street sweepers, booksellers, a "seedy" teahouse, etc.), and it could be argued that Mumford was more interested in life in Iraq than war in Iraq.
Prior to his Middle East journey, Mumford was known chiefly for large-scale narrative canvases with the ultra-vivid, suspenseful look of adventure illustrations. In those works, skies and landscapes seem filled with portents, animals convey a preternatural awareness, and lurid light touches everything with strange glamour. It's akin to the fusion of 10th-century romanticism with the gaudy look of fantasy comics perfected in the poster art of Frank Frazetta, the inventor of Conan the Barbarian and an artist Mumford admires. A similar sort of storyboard drama heats up a few of the Iraq drawings, the nocturnal scenes in particular. Appropriately, Mumford's series is to be published later this year by Drawn and Quarterly Books, which specializes in graphic novels.
Mumford went to Iraq not as a journalist but as a storyteller in search of material and immediacy. He was at work on his first war painting, a Vietnam-era subject, when the American offensive presented an opportunity to see the real thing. Like Homer, who produced psychologically complex oil paintings of the Civil War as well as woodcut engravings of skirmishes for Harper's Weekly, Mumford intends to synthesize more ambitious compositions from the drawings. At the time of this writing, he was scheduled to return to Baghdad for a two-month stay beginning Jan. 14.