By Katarina Hybenova
John Bonham. The name comes from a World War I novel Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, about a soldier Johnny, who was unable to communicate with the outside world due to the extent of his wounds. In early 2011, war artist Michael Fay took the name and formed John Bonham Project, a project that brought together war illustrators and highlighted their drawings of soldiers wounded in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, undergoing rehabilitation…
When art writer James Panero was offered to curate his first art show ever at Bushwick gallery Storefront, he decided to contact Michael Fay, and compile an exhibition from amongst John Bonham Project artists. John Bonham Project comes right in time to commemorate 9/11, and as James says, 9/11 didn’t end for the soldiers who were part of the combat that followed this tragic event of the modern history.
The exhibition opened last Thursday, and coming to Storefront felt different than on other occasions. The familiar space was filled with soldiers in their festive uniforms. Many of them got a special leave from the military, James tells me later.
The art works hanging on the walls are mostly pencil and charcoal drawings; some are black and white; others are colored. Some of the drawings contain also notes of the artist, taken while sketching and interviewing the wounded soldier. You can observe the drawings of soldiers recovering from dismemberment, facial damages…. Looking at the drawings makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but also curious about the stories behind the work.
The greatest attention in Bushwick receives a young marine Rob Bates and his two pencil portraits of soldiers recovering from facial disfigurement. The execution of the pencil drawing is perfect, and furthermore the faces, despite the injuries, depict a lot of emotion and thought. I look them closer in the eye, trying to understand how someone like that must have felt, expecting maybe a look of a hero who wants nothing but our everlasting gratitude. Or maybe a look of someone excruciated by the fate, which caused him to experience the agony of pain. But all I see is a boy who is a little sad, but dealing with the slow recovery from his injuries, and who can’t wait to go home…
Artist Judith Braun and I approach Rob Bates, who smiles humbly, and tells us that that one is nothing, pointing to the drawing. He says it took him only about 45 minutes to make each of them. “Look at this one,” Rob says, and pulls out his iPhone to show us an amazingly realistic pencil portrait.
“So you’ve been to combat?” Judith asks Rob.
“Yes, ma’am!” Rob answers, and I have to smile. Rob tells us he has been to Afghanistan twice, and currently is serving his last 4 months in the military before he retires. Rob is maybe my age, and I am interested about his further life plans. He wants to go back home to North Carolina, and apply to art school, for an MFA program.
Rob tells us that many galleries and museums haven’t been so welcoming like Storefront. Often, they feel like the portrayed bodies missing limbs are too much for them. But Bushwick, that’s a different story…
The Joe Bonham Project is on view at Storefront through September 18.