The latest exhibition at the National Veterans Art Museum — Maurice Costello: Back to “The Nam” — tells the story of Maurice Costello’s experience while serving in the Vietnam War and his difficult transition as a civilian. This exhibition includes 21 works that are set in chronological order — starting with 1967 when Costello was drafted into the army until the present time.
One of Costello’s artistic strengths is his use of colors — from vibrant to muted — as a way to emphasize various emotions. A number of his works aren’t framed as rectangles or squares, but instead form various shapes, some looking like cutouts, that add an immediacy to his art. His creative process often involves constructing his work on the computer and digitally manipulating personal photographs and images.
Costello explores a range of emotions, many of them dark and painful, that allows us to peek into his psyche. In the First Time Ever, we see a close up of a terror-stricken face that has a sickly green hue. In this particular work, Costello tells the story of his first day in Vietnam when he finds a Vietnamese man in the jungle who has been shot by American GIs and is dying before him. Costello further examines his feelings about his war experience in the Crossroads — a deathly image of a skull being consumed by flames from within. This work does not only speak about Costello’s personal views about the horrors of war, but it’s also a reflection of his own painful emotions such as when he encountered the scattered remains of a young Vietnamese man who had been killed the night before.
Another powerful image is pre-Facetime which is a view of a ’60s-style television that shows the graphic for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in the foreground while in the background there are American GIs in the Vietnam jungle. Adding to the tension of this work is a reflection of the artist’s mother on the TV screen. This work is a grim reminder that Costello’s mother like millions of other Americans were dependent on these news programs to get as much information as possible about the Vietnam War.
Costello also explores the difficult adjustment he had to make once he became a civilian again. After being discharged from the service, Costello was divorced, fired from a job, and abusing a variety of legal and illegal drugs. This painful transition is best illustrated in a Blue Period that shows an army discharge paper that is covered with a bright red target with a hypodermic needle hitting the bullseye like a dart. This image has an out-of-focus quality that is a reflection of the artist’s own life that lacked a sense of clarity and direction.
Equally impressive is an Unknown Soldier that portrays a GI in his dress uniform while wearing a goalie-like mask in order to hide the fact that he had taken part in the Vietnam War. This work represents how this war was growing increasingly unpopular in the States and how many Vietnam vets began to question their country’s involvement in this war.
Perhaps Costello’s most ambitious work is his Autobiography series, in which the viewer sees five different faces of the artist from different periods in his life. We see an evolution take place not only through his physical features, but also on a deeper, emotional level. These five faces include: The innocence of a young man living in a small town before being drafted; the world-weary look of a GI in Vietnam; a dissipated longhair struggling with drug abuse after his discharge; a family man feeling optimistic about his future; and an older, wiser man who has found a sense of peace in his life.
The power of Maurice Costello: Back to “The Nam” is that Costello doesn’t merely document his experiences in a detached journalistic way, but rather he humanizes his experiences on a deeply personal level — creating a memoir through images rather than words. And even though his story is a very personal one about his experience in Vietnam, in the end his works also tell a universal story that is shared by many GIs who have served in various foreign conflicts.
Costello has had several solo shows and has participated in numerous group exhibitions. He has received various awards including an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. His work is also in several permanent and private collections, and his installation, Autobiography, is part of the National Veterans Art Museum’s permanent collection.
This exhibition will be on view through January 25 at the National Veterans Art Museum located at 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue (second floor). Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. For more information about other exhibitions and events at the museum, visit their website or call 312-326-0270.