As conflict, violence and warfare appear increasingly topical in contemporary art, and with Middle-East revolutions challenging military control, it is easy to overlook the fact that some nations actually foster artistry via their armed forces. Canada makes for an excellent case study in this respect, for which “A Brush With War: Military Art from Korea to Afghanistan,” organized and toured by the Canadian War Museum, provides an ideal context. To be clear, and in the words of organizer Laura Brandon, this is an “historical exhibit” of predominantly official war art comprised almost exclusively of painting and drawing. But the means by which these works have been created, and the evolution of artistic approaches, point the way towards an important discussion.
The Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP) is the most recent in a continuum of war-art programs that commenced during the Great War. Figures such as Arthur Lismer, Alex Colville and Molly Lamb Bobak have participated in various incarnations of these initiatives, with the CFAP, running since 2001, affording “opportunities to support the independent, creative work of professional Canadian artists of all cultures who wish to contribute to the history of the Canadian Forces.” The newest works in “A Brush With War” are all by CFAP members. Contributions by Scott Waters and Gertrude Kearns yield the most progressive approaches to media and content along with some earlier collaged contributions by Alan Harding MacKay, all taking risks in problematizing the complex relationships of patronage and power.
MacKay’s Probe, created as a corollary to the former Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (CAFCAP), addresses the murder of Shidane Arone by Canadian Forces in Somalia. Kearns also has a hard-hitting painting of this event that, notably, was not produced in connection with an official military art program, yet is in the Museum’s collection. But her Afghanistan painting What They Gave stands out through its inclusion of what appears as a youth in a state of pre- or post-surgery. With the show totaling 64 works, of which all but 5 incorporate people, What They Gave reaches into territory beyond the immediate realm of frontline personnel and military hardware. In the vein of institutional critique, Waters also breaks down assumptions and stereotypes. By leaving parts of his paintings bare or using blocks of colour to strip back form, questions are posed metaphorically and, via diptych text panels, quite literally: what is the end game?
Much of the show presents itself as a chronological record of Canada’s military activities: commemorating personnel and memorializing events. Muralist and painter Karole Marois will satisfy those audiences who seek a monument to earlier epics. From her 2005 CFAP trip visiting the 60th anniversary World War II liberation parade in the Dutch village of Apeldoorn, Marois has created a series of panels incorporating the parade, veterans, and families. Additional traditional functions appear via Ted Zuber’s work from the Korean War. Zuber’s Contact, painted during a period when the Canadian Forces were not maintaining an art program, was actually done from memory, 25 years after the event. It’s the only active battle scene in a show in which there is, otherwise, a move away from the firefights that were once a mainstay of military art.
The evolution of artistry in “A Brush With War” highlights Canada’s progressive, official approach to conflict and creativity via a variety of cultural shifts. A generation ago, a war artist was invariably male, often connected to the military and at times required to provide artworks “created during his assignment… free of charge.” But “A Brush With War” demonstrates that many artists are now female, most are civilians, and they can retain ownership over their work. Most significantly, unlike comparable programs in other countries, the CFAP has an open call for submissions (the next being November 30th). Artists selected since 2008 include Adrian Stimpson, Sharon McKay, Charles Stankievech and Nichola Feldman-Kiss, adopting media as varied as video, fiction writing and music. The progress evident in “A Brush With War” puts Canada at the forefront of supporting the artistic rendering of conflict-related cultural canons.