March 19 marked 10 years since the United States invaded Iraq.
The anniversary of a war that so recently scorched scenes of death and destruction into people's minds may seem like a timely occasion for "Out of Rubble," a multimedia exhibit that opened March 20 at Wells College.
But the truth is, "Out of Rubble" — 29 visions of war and its dusty, debris-strewn wake — is timely every day, curator Susanne Slavick said.
"Unfortunately, Iraq and Afghanistan are just a few of the conflicts going on today. War has been with us since the origin of the species," said Slavick, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But that doesn't mean we can't curb our instincts and find a way to co-exist on the planet. I hope in some small way this exhibit does that."
"Rubble" began taking shape about seven years ago, when Slavick started to collect art that, like her own, addresses the consequences of war. The effort led to a 2011 book, also called "Out of Rubble," which pairs war-themed images from more than 40 artists with essays by Slavick. A Pittsburgh debut for the "Out of Rubble" exhibit followed, and soon after, Slavick was speaking to Wells professor William Ganis about taking the show to Aurora.
"I brought this exhibition to Wells because it touches on so many areas the students study here," he said. "The connections to art making and art history are obvious, but this show addresses other disciplines, whether considers psychology and the images related to PTSD, anthropology and the ways these artists understand their own cultural identities and those of their subjects, or journalism and the reporting on and framing of conflict."
The works in "Out of Rubble" range from the unadulterated real to the barely recognizable abstract. Taysir Batniji's "GH0809: House 1" digital prints subvert the dream-home allure of real estate ads by swapping their typically immaculate imagery for that of residences demolished in the Gaza War of 2008-2009.
On the opposite end is "Iraqi Ditch" by Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz, who created her oil-on-cast by referencing decades of war photography, from Auschwitz to Afghanistan, to paint onto a crannied Hydrocal plaster surface.
"It speaks to the sad continuity of war, the persistence of war within the context of contemporary conflicts," Slavick said. "It's a very physical, bulging and cracked plaster that looks like rubble itself."
In Slavick's own "Rescind: Bird in Rubble," she blows up a picture of a rubble-skirted high-rise until it's blurry, filters it in royal blue and transposes onto it a stork she pulled from a Persian painting.
The "Rescind" part of the title stems from the theme of Slavick's series "R&R(&R)," which affixes to the military concept of "rest and relaxation" more complicated wartime ideas, such as "regenerate" and "resurrect." In the piece, the bird balances on its beak a sinuous white cloud, painted by Slavick, that could be interpreted to represent hopes and dreams, she said.
"Often when I paint animals, it shows how oblivious the natural world is to wartime," she said. "They don't know the motives. It's an indication of survival — kind of a blind survival that could also represent some degree of hope, as bleak as it is."
Despite the subject matter, none of the work in "Rubble" depicts corpses or other graphic bodily violence, Slavick said. But some artists do try to point toward war's human toll. Wafaa Bilal's prints model Iraq War wreckage in dollhouse-like rooms flooded by the ash of human bone and flesh. For Bilal, it's the most personal of meanings — his brother was killed by shrapnel in Najaf, and his father subsequently died, he believes, from grief, Slavick said.
"We use the languages we're most articulate in to convey our ideas, our criticisms and our hopes," Slavick said. "I think the role of artists is to put pressure on our conscience."