Review: Unseen Reality Through the Eyes of Post 9/11 Veterans at National Veterans Art Museum

The latest exhibition at the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM)  is Scene|Unseen, featuring the works of four post 9/11 veteran/artists—Jake Baker, Jenn Hassin, Brian Kennedy and Aaron Webb. This exhibition allows viewers to gain insight into the unseen reality of these four veterans. The 14 works in a variety of media create a thought-provoking exhibition, because they challenge our own perception of how we shouldn’t accept what we see at face value. Each work expresses a narrative that explores the dynamics of trauma and suffering while also giving insight into the challenges of the healing process for veterans who have experienced trauma. Jenn Hassin, “Amalgam,” Jenn Hassin, Amalgam, 2020-21. Handmade paper pulp. Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum. The works by Jenn Hassin create a dynamic effect as she exposes her own vulnerability as well as inner strength from her experiences while serving in the military. Good examples of this are Amalgam, New Tacks, and Pink Horizon; these works are made out of clothing materials worn by people who suffered various forms of trauma such as human trafficking, rape and violence. By pulverizing the clothing material into paper pulp, we experience a strong sense of the fragility of the human experience during war. One can particularly see this process take place in Amalgam, which is composed of 18 large fragments that look like jagged pieces of a jigsaw puzzle hanging on the wall. At first glance, one immediately thinks the human spirit has been fractured by trauma, but upon closer inspection, the viewer can experience resilience and strength because there is a sense of movement to these large fragments as if they are slowly coming together as a whole, representing a healing process that is taking place. Hassin also addresses trauma in two works titled Navigating Transferred Trauma: 1 & 2. In these two works, we see what looks like a map of the mind that tries to come to grips with suffering and pain.  This cartographic effect allows us to get a visual peek at how the mind copes with trauma—there are open and closed-off passage ways, walled-off sections, and shaded areas that show the complexity of coping with painful memories. Jake Baker, “Two Thousand Ten,” Jake Baker, Two Thousand Ten, 2015. Oil on panel. Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum. In Jake Baker’s works, we see his use of bold colors through vibrant images that address his own psychological state of PTSD and prescription drug dependence from the effects of serving in a war. In Two Thousand Ten, Baker graphically displays his own bout with depression after serving in Afghanistan. In this work, he creates tubular-like structures under the facial skin that act as microscopic views of pain receptors on the skin’s surface. This work acts as a strong reminder that there is something much deeper happening beneath the surface of one’s facial expression. Another compelling work by Baker is his collage titled I’ve Seen This Before and I’ll Keep Seeing It where we see a young boy feeding his dogs in a rural setting that is very reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. But there is so much more to this than meets the eye because this innocent scene has a disturbing quality since in the background, we see a dark figure that looks like the grim reaper. This dark figure is a haunting presence and acts as an ominous reminder that innocence is a fragile commodity that can be easily destroyed by traumatic events. Aaron Webb, “Joy: None Greater,” Aaron Webb, Joy: None Greater, 2020. Acrylic, ink and dye on canvas. Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum. As an abstract expressionist, Aaron Webb’s paintings examine an idiosyncratic reality, creating works full of visual power. Although at first glance, one can get the impression of spontaneity in his works, when looking deeper, we see his paintings involve careful planning. Like other abstract expressionists, Webb uses abstraction to convey strong emotional and expressive content, attacking his canvases with vigorous gestural expressionism. There is an impressive range in his work. In his paintings such as Joy: None Greater and She Makes The Sound, The Sound The Sea Makes, he conveys a sense of motion and energy. There is also a dark existential quality such as in To Feel Finality that speaks of a fellow veteran who committed suicide. Brian Kennedy creates a stunning, moving image in Behind the Wire, Afghanistan. This three-minute work of virtual reality is a scene of the Shindand airbase in Western Afghanistan.  There is an eerie beauty to this work as Kennedy creates a hypnotic effect as the viewer follows the winding lines of barbed wire that run along the perimeter of a military base. The lines of barbed wire glow and flash in brilliant white light that gives the impression of synapses flaring along the neural pathways of the brain. Kennedy seems to convey the stressful mental state of a soldier who is always at high alert—the fight or flight syndrome—when danger is ever present. Also worth noting are the juxtaposition of images — military structures constructed below the majesty of a mountainside with the sun setting in the sky. And what completes the mastery of this work is the melancholy sound of indie folk music playing in the background. Watch Kennedy's Behind the Wire, Afghanistan below. Scene|Unseen is a compelling exhibition because each artist not only displays their experience of serving in the military, but also reveals their personal truth and understanding of the world. They remind us that we cannot deny traumatic events in our lives if we truly want the healing process to take place. Brendan Foster, executive director of NVAM, summed it up when he stated, “This exhibition tells us that there is so much more than what meets the eye. No matter what scene you see, there are always elements that you can’t see. This exhibition also allows the viewer to have more insight and empathy as to what many veterans experience during their time of service.” This exhibition will be on view through May 2022. The National Veterans Art Museum is located at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. (second floor). Hours: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Tuesday and Thursday by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information about other exhibitions at the museum, visit their website or call 312-326-0270.
Picture of the author
Thomas Wawzenek