Meg Daly reviews Thomas Macker: Holdout on Planet Jackson Hole 10.20.16

CREATIVE PEAKS: Camo and Propaganda
By Meg Daly on October 18, 2016

JACKSON HOLE, WY – From mess tents to tanks to uniforms, camouflage is a ubiquitous staple of war. The U.S. Army regularly tests and upgrades its camo patterns to match the latest in technology as well as the various locations soldiers are deployed. Meanwhile the camo craze in civilian clothing dawns eternal, with everything from T-shirts to trucker hats emblazoned in army green and desert sand.

But has camo ever received its fair share of artistic investigation? A new solo show by Jackson artist Thomas Macker seeks to redress the omission. Macker’s exhibit, entitled “Holdout,” runs through January 15, at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper.

“Camouflage means embedding something into the environment,” Macker said. “With camo, we are disguising something, making it invisible. I wanted to look at the ways camouflage literally changes the landscape.”

The exhibit spans two rooms and features several sculptures, paintings and prints, all involving complex materials and processes. The work draws upon references from war history as well as art history. In his artist statement, Macker notes, “Since World War I, artists like Paul Klee, Franz Marc and other expressionists, cubists and surrealists have worked as camofleurs [camouflage artists employed by the government].”

Macker wants to explore if a foreign occupation with a strict palette and style affects the landscape.

One possible answer to the question of how landscape is changed by war might be found in Macker’s sculpture, “Unflagging, Hiroo Onoda’s Motto on Loyalty,” a model of a Miyajima pine tree, a gift from Japan for the United States Bicentennial in 1976. The sculpture is made of five sheets of mirror-polished stainless steel held together by several titanium pipes. Macker carpeted the room entirely in a beige carpet padding, which from a distance looks like rough sand. The viewer can see herself in the mirrored layers of tree sculpture, and using a bit of imagination the viewer can allow only a leg or a hand, for example, to appear in the mirror, creating the effect of the rest of the body simply blending into the desert-like room.

In addition to investigating camouflage, “Holdout” examines what Macker calls the “holdout” character, a hero who holds out during a time of war, perhaps as a prisoner, holding out for life. Macker references the real life “holdout” figure of Hiroo Oonda, a Japanese soldier who held out for 30 years in the Philippines, thinking he was doing espionage for his country, not comprehending that World War II had ended. Reality for Oonda was camouflaged by his all-encompassing sense of duty.

When asked about his inspiration for the exhibit, Macker says he thought about his father who was in the Navy, and the generations of Americans for whom conscripted service was a fairly pedestrian experience. Nowadays, Macker argues, it’s less the norm for people to become soldiers.

“When I was 18 and 20 years old, I was talking to people about my artwork, not getting ready to go to basic training,” he said. “I wasn’t telling my family goodbye before getting shipped off to fight an enemy in a foreign land.”

The exhibit also draws upon the history of wartime propaganda—leaflets used during World War II designed to disturb the enemy psychologically.

Artists are behind the psychological propaganda leaflets, Macker noted, which are then dropped en masse upon enemy populations. He noted that it’s unusual for an artist to make something that is intended to have one meaning all at once to a large number of people. “Artwork usually has multiple meanings and is a private experience,” he said.

Macker says during the course of researching his subjects, he met a former propaganda maker who had defected from the armed services because he didn’t want to be part of psychological warfare; he found it too disturbing. Often the subject matter of propaganda leaflets preyed upon young men’s sexuality, taunting them that their spouses were cheating on them or being raped by other men. The imagery and intent is often dark and pornographic, Macker noted, with exaggerated cartoony features that appear when held up to a light.

Emulating propaganda leaflets not through subject matter so much as unique, high tech paintings that reveal a secret message when touched, Macker used thermal paint on a copper plate that turns into a kind of liquid in response to body heat. What looks like a black surface when touched becomes an image of, for instance, a saluting soldier with the words “I’m hurting inside.”

Macker says the thermal paint allowed him to reference high-tech warfare of today. “Thermal imaging and infrared have affected how the figure appears or performs in the landscape. Seen from the air by drones, we are viewed only by our heat signature,” he said.

He also created an oversized riff on a leaflet, with the shadowy outline of a nude woman’s body. It is the artist’s nod to “Nude Descending a Staircase,” an iconic 1912 modernist painting by Marcel Duchamp.

By creating a body of work that brings camouflage from the background to the foreground of consciousness, and by examining the art history of artists during wartime, Macker has created an eerie, provocative experience. His exhibit enables the viewer to think about the visual and psychological impact of warfare.

An artist’s reception happens December 1 at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper. PJH

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