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Column: At the Oceanside Museum of Art, a pop art exhibit by military veterans defies stereotypes
San Diego Union-Tribune - 8/13/2022
What you will see at "Pop Smoke: A Veteran Art Exhibition":Dazzling flowers and jewel-encrusted Madonnas. Warhol-esque silkscreens. Trippy seascapes. Mick Jagger's lips.
What you won't see: The things you were expecting.
"Veteran art tends to be dark and foreboding and tends to take on heavy issues. So I was thinking, 'What is the opposite of that, and how can we complicate things?,'" said Amber Zora, the South Dakota-based interdisciplinary artist who curated the Oceanside Museum of Art exhibition, which was developed in partnership with the Vista-based Veterans Art Project.
"There are some military symbols within the exhibition, but what happens when the symbols in the work are not military-related?"
Inspired by the bright, boundary-busting works of such pop art pioneers as Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns — both of whom served in the military — "Pop Smoke" spotlights current works that reflect the full spectrum of what veteran art can be.
The exhibition opens today and runs through Jan. 15, 2023. All of the Southern California artists featured in "Pop Smoke" are veterans, but what they create and why is as individual as they are.
When she was putting the exhibition together, Zora focused on the vivid colors, simple geometric shapes and playfulness that come with the pop art territory. She was also looking for artists who had something to say, even if it was something as straightforward as, "Look at this!"
"I've been in the veteran art world for 10 years, and I have never seen an exhibition like this," said Zora, who served in the U.S. Army for eight years and has curated veteran art exhibitions at Blue Star Contemporary Art in San Antonio and the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
"Veterans want to be taken seriously as artists, and veteran artists contain multitudes, as we all do. There are a lot of different points that I was trying to weave together with this exhibition, and one is that those bright colors and those basic shapes can have a poignant message, too."
In William Schinsky's "Grenade or Brush (Colors of the Sixties)," a rippling curtain of dyed and painted yarn could be showing us a tool of war or an instrument of creativity. Gina Herrera's whimsical found-materials sculpture, "The Flamenco Awaits," feels like an invitation to celebrate the occasion of your choice.
And in "Immarican," a surrealist oil painting by Encinitas-based artist Zigaloe, the tableau featuring a skateboarder and a zebra-striped rhino is a challenge to keep thinking, even after you walk away.
For Oceanside artist Mike Stevens, the look of "Lick-ten-steins" — his ceramic tribute to Lichtenstein in the form of porcelain beer steins decorated with the Rolling Stones' famous lips logo — was in part a reaction to the colors he associates with his 23 years in the Marines. Or the lack thereof.
"In the military, you have black, green and tan. So I've made it a point to incorporate as much bright color as I can," said Stevens, who is currently studying art at UC San Diego.
Stevens turned to ceramics in 2020, when a neck injury kept him from doing the surfing and bike-riding he loves. He spent the next six months hunkered down in the Veteran Art Project's ceramics studio, where the physicality of working with clay kept him from going stir crazy. Like the wordplay in the title, Stevens created "Lick-ten-steins" with your viewing pleasure in mind.
"Some people want a message to be seen in their art. Other people want to make beautiful things," Stevens said. "I like making nice things overall. I want people to enjoy what they see."
When Oceanside artist Luz Helena Thompson looked at the piece that would become "Free Bird," the shape made of broken mirror pieces and paint didn't look like a bird at all. But when she stood the horizontal canvas on its end, a glorious, glittering bird emerged.
It was the kind of miracle that Thompson has come to expect from art.
Thompson served in the Marines from 1998 through 2000. After she reported being sexually assaulted by her sergeant, she was given an other-than-honorable discharge, which prevented her from receiving military benefits. Art became her outlet, and finding the potential in a broken mirror became one of many transformations.
"It helped me heal. I realized that I could take these broken parts of myself and create something absolutely beautiful from that brokenness," said Thompson, who has a master's in rehabilitation science from Pennsylvania Western University, California and is a writer, motivational speaker and performance poet.
Thompson's "Free Bird" didn't reveal itself until she flipped the canvas. You could say the same about all of the works in "Pop Smoke," which flip the script on who veteran artists are and the many things their art can be.
"We may have all served, but we all have our own story. When we are all dressed in the same uniform, that gets missed. There is more to a veteran than where they served or what they saw when they were enlisted," Thompson said.
"That's why art is such a wonderful bridge. It brings us to a place where we can bridge the military and civilian divide and start conversations about things that might otherwise not be asked."
"Pop Smoke: A Veteran Art Exhibition" runs through Jan. 15, 2023 at the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way, Oceanside. Go to oma-online.org for information.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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