Jane Irish: War Is Not What You Think. A Collaborative Exhibition of the La Salle University Art Museum and the Connelly Library
Points of Reference in the Art Museum Exhibit
During the Vietnam War, Jane Irish began using art as a form of resistance. That war has remained central to her work in the decades since. For the exhibition War Is Not What You Think, Irish has wrapped the Special Exhibitions Gallery of the La Salle University Art Museum in three large, scroll-like ink washes on paper. On the occasion of her 2002 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibition, poet and Vietnam Vet W.D. Ehrhardt introduced Irish to La Salle’s Connelly Library’s Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War (IRVW) collection. Much of Irish’s source material for the current exhibition comes from this collection and a corollary exhibition at the Library gives viewers the opportunity to see the collection first hand.
In the largest and earliest of the three compositions, The Conversation, 2010, Irish evokes the land and villages of Vietnam and includes Vietnam War veterans’ poetry alongside verse by late 18th century female Vietnamese poet, Ho Xuân Huong, translated into English. The text, which looks as if it were printed onto freshly-washed sheets blown by a soft breeze, is set above and adjacent to images of an outdoor Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) rally alternating with Vietnamese scenes. In her recent two compositions of La Conversation, 2011, Irish expands the themes of the earlier panel to reference colonialism. She also includes Jacques Prévert’s “The Discourse on Peace,” appearing in the original French, and a poem by Lt. Stuett who died in Vietnam. Together, these paintings completely wrap the gallery space, producing the sense that one is immersed in the scenes and texts.
The first of the new panels presents an image of the VVAW in the same cyan blue above a watery reflection in red with representations of colonialism. The second of the new panels showcases Vietnamese landscapes with a hanging bridge motif of Vietnamese figures that appear to be looking down on the viewer. In these rippling “reflections” that fill the bottom half of both compositions, Irish depicts a Rococo room in a Malouinière built by the merchants of the French East India Company, who were active in Vietnam during the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries; and French church interiors, representing the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris’ presence in Vietnam from the 18th century. The sepia color of the reflections suggests blood in the water and gives the added implication that fault lies with the world depicted in those images. In the new panels, text appears in the bottom rather than the top half of the piece, compounding the reflecting and doubling of motifs in the upper and lower bands.
The VVAW imagery of the large panels is based on Sheldon Ramsdell’s documentary photographs of the Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal) rally, Labor Day, 1970. Sharing much of the vernacular spirit of other contemporaneous live art forms such as Happenings, FLUXUS, and performance art, protesters marched from Morristown, N.J. to Valley Forge State Park dressed in combat fatigues and carrying toy weapons. The action dramatized an infantry combat sweep of indigenous Vietnamese towns to raise awareness, and opposition, in the United States about search and destroy missions.
In her employment of Rococo details, Irish mixes elements of decorative art, with its cultural baggage as a “minor” rather than “fine” art, and its associations with the feminine, with the politics of resistance. Rococo interior design, as the domain of 18th-century French aristocracy, evokes a sense of intimacy and indulgence, not grandeur. It was characteristic of a pre-Revolution elite out of touch with the main of society, but, importantly, of nobles with no real political power. Irish’s loose, expressionistic brushwork adds a charge to the Rococo forms. Instead of playful, sensual scenes of frivolity, Irish substitutes narrative content about the legacy of the Vietnam War.
The relationship between Vietnam and France began in the 17th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries in Vietnam. France became increasingly involved in Vietnam over the course of the 19th century culminating in the creation of French Indochina (1887-1954) after the French victory over China in the Sino-French War (1884-5). Even though it is tempting to assume that Irish’s inclusion of Rococo imagery somehow relates to the French colonial history, the period of French colonial control is the period that the Rococo falls out of fashion in France. Irish’s use of Rococo thus reflects her broader interests in collapsing and combining art historical references.
Carmen Vendelin, Curator of Art, La Salle University Art Museum