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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Blood and the issues of blood wasted. Broken promises and broken hooded men. M-16s and billy clubs. These are the images drawn from the raw experiences Jesse Albrecht pulls from his clay, his printmaking and paper casting. Albrecht’s pieces, powerful and demanding, echo those dark times after the towers fell, reminding us of the years some would like to forget.

His work is anti-war and the perspective, that of a soldier. Having spent 10 years in the National Guard and served as a medic in Iraq, his images are wrought with the contradictions of war. Albrecht’s work latches onto those times, holding close the hurt in an effort to remember.

His ceramic pieces stand three to four feet tall, reminders of the hooded soldiers from Abu Ghraib, the smashed ideals of power gouged into baked clay. Some of the pieces present hands folded in prayer, other have eyes, or pushed-in faces, snake symbols, dogs and words.

“It’s a choice I make,” he says. “It’s a conscious decision to have people ask themselves. The art provides a format to talk about my work, my life and my view of the world."

To that end, Albrecht also participated in the Veteran’s Book Project to produce a kind of diary/scrapbook of his time in Iraq. The book has traveled internationally as part of a group show. In it are postcards from home and family alongside photos of Iraq, people he met there, and thoughts of his own, like these from his book:

“Descending into the dark. I find this war and violence and its resulting loss of moral compass changes perspective on everything. With each mortar, rocket, IED, and random spray of AK, a little bit of you gets filed down, worn away. Eventually, it is more acceptable to shoot at something, someone, than to wait to get shot. With the ambiance of burning trash and shit and the lack of ceramic plate inserts for my body armor (the plates that help stop bullets and shrapnel) translates to this: my life isn’t worth much to the people on up the line from me.”

To create his prints and paper casts, Albrecht worked with the people from the project, Combat Paper. They cut up military uniforms and rendered a paper pulp. From there he made sheets of paper as well as cast images with the pulp. Albrecht then silkscreened images using the paper pulp itself. Instead of applying a squeegee to a mesh of the screen, finely beaten pulp is put in a spray bottle and used as ink. The cellulose in the pulp bonds with the paper, and a raised surface is created. The piece retains the communicability of a silkscreen but feels like a bas-relief.

For Albrecht, this process lent itself to recurring themes of good and bad, the duality of Man, visions of war and of home. With iconic images of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., overlaid with the portrait of Saddam Hussein, taken from Iraqi dinars, it couldn’t be any clearer or more muddled.

In a recent essay, Albrecht said,
“When I returned from Iraq I felt like an alien here, Iraq was my home, I had a purpose there, and all the continually fucked-up situations felt normal. Here the violence, aggression, and fear which made me successful in Iraq continue to cause struggle and pain.

“It is important to hear directly from the participants and the arts provide form where the experience and its results can be remade into something tangible. Something that allows the outsider (non-combatants) a chance to feel a sliver of our emotions their tax dollars paid for. It is vital to remove the spin from the combatants’ experiences.

“The change started to register for me when the Abu Ghraib pictures surfaced. While I was disgusted like everyone else, I also thought –well, shit, I would much prefer a naked pyramid any day of the week over my head getting cut off and the video being posted on the internet for the family to see. But there are videos of American soldiers killing on the internet. The cycle starts and everything else falls away. Ideas of right andwrong are already conditioned out of soldiers. Learning how to kill, wanting to kill, being rewarded for it, having it be an honorable thing, is part of the training to become a soldier. Seeing dead and blown-apart Americans as a medic wore me down quickly. When we went out on security missions I hoped I could kill who was trying to kill me. My thoughts, hopes, and dreams of killing weren’t like the John Wayne myth, but an up-close and personal event, where I could watch someone’s head explode, either from my bullets or buttstroke from my rifle caving their face in, or maybe disemboweling them with my fighting knife I wore on my body armor (without the ceramic plates that would stop bullets).

“It is not the others that commit the atrocities that are part of the war experience. It is people like me, an eagle scout, member of the National Honor Society, my mother’s youngest son. It didn’t take me very long to get to the place where I wanted to join the ranks of atrocity, because it is the energy and essence of war. The most beautiful and most horrible, intertwined in a never-ending knot. I thank God I didn’t act on my thoughts, and now my thoughts can act on me, and I act on those around me.” 

Author’s Note: Very recently, the Emerson Center for Culture and Arts, a private non-profit organization that is funded in part by the Montana Arts Council and the National Foundation of the Arts, had a faculty show for MSU art professors and adjuncts. Since Albrecht teaches ceramics as an adjunct he was invited to the show. The piece he sent was a combat paper silkscreen of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Saddam Hussein. Separately a thin, wooden billy club was attached to the wall and from it hung his Veteran’s Book. However, these pieces were taken down from the show, following a decision by the executive board of the Emerson and the Executive Director, Susan Denson-Guy, who felt the billy club could be taken off the wall by a guest, resulting in a safety hazard.

According to Albrecht, he was told to replace the work with something less “incendiary,” although the Emerson staff denies using that term. Nevertheless, the piece was removed three days after it was installed. In retrospect, Albrecht told me, “I’m fighting for freedom [in Iraq] and here that freedom is taken away from me.”

In my opinion, this could have been easily mitigated. Regarding the Emerson’s concerns of a public risk, they could’ve easily encased the billy club or displayed it out of reach. In the end, because the piece was removed, the act constitutes a silencing of a very important voice. Whatever the pretense, they ultimately censored the work of a veteran communicating his own, nationally critical experiences through the lens of art.

As of this publication on Tuesday, February 19th, the issue is still not resolved. A letter from MSU’s art faculty in support of Albrecht’s work has been sent to the Emerson’s board, and in turn the board sent a letter to Jesse Albrecht explaining why they took his work down. The Emerson board does not feel they acted inappropriately, a conclusion with which Albrecht disagrees. There are still some meetings being held between MSU's art department and the Emerson seeking resolution, and a full board meeting has been called. -TBM

Michele Corriel's article from January introduced her many loyal readers (at the Magpie and elsewhere) to artist Mary Leslie.

Updated, 12:10 pm on Wednesday, February 20th: The decision to take down Albrecht's artwork was made not by the "Emerson board" (as originally reported in the first paragraph of the Author's Note) but by the executive board of the Emerson, which consists of Wynn Jessup and Terri Losty, as well as the Executive Director, Susan Denson-Guy.




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