* Russ Smith's artistic contribution to the 2008 international traveling art exhibition "Experiencing the War in Iraq" is "a tough, in-your-face work . . . a stark reminder of the violence unleashed by the American invasion . . . shockingly graphic . . . harrowing."
Reprinted below is a portion of Bill Van Siclen's review of the group exhibition "Experiencing the War in Iraq." The review appeared in the March 13, 2008 issue of The Providence Journal . . .
If you were expecting “Experiencing the War in Iraq,” a month-long series of Iraq-themed talks, performances and exhibits organized by a group of local artist-activists, to feature a predictable chorus of antiwar voices, think again . . . . “Experiencing the War in Iraq” is far too diverse — and for that reason, much too important — to dismiss as just another chance to vent about the war in Iraq.
To take just one example: At Machines with Magnets, a new multi-use arts space in Pawtucket, Wakefield artist Russ Smith has recreated the harrowing Fallujah Blues installation he first exhibited two years ago at AS220. Inspired by the 2003 [sic] attack on four employees of the American military contractor Blackwater USA, the installation uses bits of charred cloth and rope to represent the men’s burned and mutilated bodies.
It’s a tough, in-your-face work — made even more so by Smith’s decision to include a series of grisly photographs taken shortly after the killings (and widely reproduced at the time by both foreign and American news organizations). Though visitors are free to ignore the photographs — all are partially covered by pieces of white cloth — their presence here is a stark reminder of the violence unleashed by the American invasion.
Yet just a few steps away from Fallujah Blues is its visual and emotional opposite.
Thinking of You, a work by Oregon artist Ashley Neese, urges viewers to write letters to American troops stationed in Iraq. In a statement, Neese explains how she began writing such letters as a fourth-grader during the first Gulf War. Now grown up and with a brother serving in Iraq, Neese continues the tradition and urges others to do likewise in “a nonpartisan spirit.” She even provides a stack of self-addressed envelopes.
That these two works — one shockingly graphic, the other sweetly hopeful — can peaceably coexist in the same exhibit says a lot about the open-minded spirit at the heart of “Experiencing the War in Iraq.” It’s also a testament to the project’s artist-organizers, who insisted that the art and performance venues be open to a wide range of people, including Iraqi refugees and Iraq War veterans. (For the record, the organizers are Fall River painter Jeff Carpenter and Providence artist-musicians Erin Rosenthal, Leif Goldberg and Raphael Lyon.)
* Russ Smith's aesthetics are "profoundly intertwined with his sense of justice."
From the October 2007 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine . . .
The Art of War Protest
An ex-lawyer's latest installation brings Haditha home.
For Russ Smith, the jump from activist lawyer to activist artist wasn't a big leap. In 2004, after fifteen years fighting for the poor in court, he turned to the studio to continue advocating for others through his art: creations built from found objects like glass jars and wicker chairs, driftwood and mannequins. "The practice of law, especially poverty law, can be creative in its own right," says the fifty-year-old Wakefield resident. "I've always had an artistic soul, and now I'm exploring that."
His work isn't all political, but Smith has created and shown three major antiwar pieces in three years, proof that his aesthetics are profoundly intertwined with his sense of justice. And the soft-spoken artist minces no words when it comes to the President and the current war in Iraq. "Bush is a garden-variety schoolyard bully," he says. "It will take years to repair the damage he has done."
Smith's latest installation, "One Morning in Haditha," on display at Firehouse 13, October 5 to 29, focuses on the 2005 massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by American soldiers after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. Twenty-four shrouded figures will loom over a recreated war zone made from sand, rubble and bricks along with several abstract soldier sculptures fabricated from metal and straw. Large text panels will recount the events of that day. Visitors can take part by screening films or hosting discussions about the war. Smith, too, will play an active role - honoring the victims by meditating and fasting for the entire twenty-four-day exhibit.
* Russ Smith's contribution to Hera Gallery group exhibition praised as "highly symbolic and imbued with Smith's distinctive and personal edge."
Doug Norris, writing in the March 26, 2007 issue of The South County Independent . . .
Review: Hera cements its rep with 'Concrete'
WAKEFIELD - Hera Gallery's latest exhibition, "Concrete: Work from the Urban Environment," accomplishes several things at once.
First, it introduces South County audiences to the vibrant art scene in Providence, where most of the nine artists collected here live and work. Second, southern Rhode Islanders can see the work without actually having to drive to Providence, no small feat given the regional disdain for I-95. And third, while the show is steeped in the atmosphere of urban life, much of the imagery will resonate here in the land of sprawling suburbia, where sirens, strip malls and developments with PR names pulled from the collected works of Thoreau threaten to overwhelm the local environment.
"Concrete," curated by Hera Gallery Director Chelsea Heffner, accomplishes all that and more, touching on the symbols of the contemporary American landscape, the tension between the hard city media of steel and asphalt and wild things growing through the cracks, and the idea of sustainable environment in an urban space . . . .
For sculptural installation artist Russ Smith of North Kingstown, the inspiration is more Paris than Providence. His installation, "59 Rivoli," is a found assemblage made of concrete, brick, eggs, straw and iron, named after a famous art squat in Paris. Highly symbolic and imbued with Smith's distinctive and personal edge, the piece pays homage to all of those starving artists who live, sleep and work in abandoned buildings, transforming these empty industrial spaces into places of nurturing and creativity . . .
"Concrete" will be on display at Hera Gallery at 327 Main St., Wakefield, through April 14. Call 789-1488.
* Russ Smith's contribution to "Waging Peace" exhibition praised for its "graphic elegance."
Doug Norris, writing in the October 19, 2006 issue of The South County Independent . . .
Review: Hera Gallery gives peace a chance
WAKEFIELD - The screaming sycophants of cable news could learn something from an exhibition like "Waging Peace," now on display at Hera Gallery, which manages (for the most part) to tone down the outrage of our politicized, polarized circumstances, aiming instead to promote debate and dialogue while raising consciousness.
In the quagmire of America's military entanglements, cartooning and lampooning only go so far. The problems are serious and lasting and they require artists, social critics and everyday citizens to think in sober and visionary ways about how to address them. "Waging Peace" is a good start. The third in a trilogy of artist-activist exhibitions cultivated at Hera and co-coordinated by local artists Claudia Flynn and Troy West (who both enter pieces) - following the ambitious Artists Defend the Environment Under Siege" in 2001 and "American Democracy Under Siege" in 2003 - the collected works convey a new maturity in artists' responses to America at war, suggesting that the "shock and awe" has finally worn off and we are left with a culture that is fatigued, resigned and uncertain about the long battles to come . . . .
[A] sub-theme of the exhibition is the role religion plays in war and peace. The idea is perhaps best illustrated by "Seventy Times Seven," a mixed-media work by Russ Smith. The artist quotes the Bible, Matthew 18: 21-22: "Then Peter came up and said to Him, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." Smith underlines the quote with graphic elegance, submerging 490 bullets in a bottle of salt water, thereby rendering them useless . . . .
Collectively, these 26 artists prove that there's nothing passive about peace. With paint and patience, cameras and conscience, they wage peace in a war-torn world, aiming for what's possible instead of what's predictable.* Art New England hails Smith's "Fallujah Blues" gallery installation as "a still life of modern war."
Doug Norris, writing in the August/September 2006 issue of Art New England . . .
The centerpiece of Russ Smith's installation is the rubble in the middle of the room, a chaos of blown-apart bricks and cinderblocks, boots and burnt rags, scattered sand and pieces of metal. Hanging overhead from the light fixtures are black drapes representing charred clothing. It is a still life of modern war; a fragmented scene of a truck bombing that has become all too familiar an image, found objects that represent the barbed wire, rusted iron, jagged concrete, and twisted metal landscapes of the battlefield. Exploding out from the main installation are sculptures, posters, photographs, writings, and other media.
A poster of George Bush's mug is presented as a kind of Anti-Uncle Sam. Underneath the president is a two-toned word: DISOBEY, with the first syllable a separate color from the second two. On another wall an American flag hangs upside down. The lyrics to John Fogarty's anti-Vietnam War song Fortunate Son are exhibited. There is also an anecdote about the disconnect between the powerful and the poor, a news item about President Bush called "A Day in the Life of a Millionaire's Son."
The story of Fallujah Blues unfolds on two walls in large text. The narrative tells a chilling story in journalistic detail about the horrific deaths of four Americans in the city of Fallujah on March 21 [sic], 2004. It's a searing piece of writing, raising questions about the privatization of modern warfare and the clandestine nature of companies like Blackwater USA, which trained the four U.S. citizens who were killed in Fallujah. Even more disturbing are photographs on the opposite wall, covered in shrouds, each an image of a corpse mutilated and burned beyond recognition - revealing the true face of war.
* Smith's work praised as "poignant . . . strong . . . sobering."
Alan Rosenberg, writing in the June 8, 2006 issue of The Providence Journal . . .
There's nothing subtle about the mixed-media work of this North Kingstown artist, whether it's a poignant tribute to his late grandfather, composed of a truck hood, a shovel, a plaid thermos, gloves, a post-hole digger and a level; the humorous "One Bad Egg," in which a giant black oval sits in a birdcage surrounded by what look like chicken eggs; or the sobering "Fallujah Blues," a room-size piece that tells the story of the deaths and mutilation of four American security contractors in that Iraqi city - and the killings of thousands of Iraqis that followed - with rags of clothing and a burnt American flag hung from the ceiling over a bed of sand that holds crumpled car parts, boots, bricks and cinderblocks. There are words, too, that make it clear that Smith sees President Bush's ignorance and indifference at the root of the problem. Strong stuff - but that's what art is supposed to be.
* "Fallujah Blues" is "harrowing . . . a timely and affecting installation."
Reprinted below is the text of Bill Van Siclen's review of Russ Smith's installation "Fallujah Blues" at AS220's Upstairs Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. The review appeared in the June 8, 2006 issue of The Providence Journal . . .
Art Scene by Bill Van Siclen
ATTACK ON THE WAR
Russ Smith's harrowing "Fallujah Blues" takes aim at the war in Iraq in AS220's upstairs gallery. In particular, the installation-style exhibit explores the month-long attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November 2004.
Dubbed "Operation Phantom Fury," the attack was triggered by the gruesome murder of four American military contractors several months earlier. Among other things, the men -- all employees of Blackwater USA, a secretive North Carolina company that supplies private security forces for the military -- were shot, burned and then hung from a bridge in the center of town.
In response, American forces launched a major attack that destroyed large parts of Fallujah and killed as many as 100,000 [sic] Iraqis. There were also reports that American planes dropped bombs laden with white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that melts its victims' flesh.
In an artist's statement, Smith says he first became interested in the story after hearing about [the] attack on the Blackwater employees (Smith refers to them as "mercenaries"). Indeed, most of the installation consists of a post-ambush tableau, complete with hunks [of] twisted metal, scattered cinderblocks and bits of charred clothing hanging from the ceiling.
Smith, a South County artist, also supplies plenty of printed information about the initial attack and the American response.
Yet as powerful as this material is, it's constrained by the gallery's small size. In a larger space, where the scale of the installation could approximate the scale of a war zone, "Fallujah Blues" would be even more powerful.
Still, with fresh allegations of atrocities in Haditha swirling around the military this week, it remains a timely and affecting installation.
"Fallujah Blues" continues through June 25 at AS220, 115 Empire St. in Providence. Hours: Mon-Fri noon-6 pm, Sat noon-4 pm, and by appointment. Phone: (401) 831-9327.
* "Grisly and unsparing, Smith's multi-media installation reverberates with the horrors of war in images and words that won't be found in the daily sound bites, press conferences and talking head shows."
What follows is the text of a review of Russ Smith's April 2006 installation "Fallujah Blues" at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, Rhode Island. The review appeared in the April 27, 2006 issue of The South County Independent . . .
Review: Examining the art of making war
Passion and outrage fuel both sides of the war debate, but only recently have protesters found a vision to go with their voice. Suddenly the shooting gallery of Iraq is a target for the art galleries of America. Two local exhibitions are a case in point. Both "Fallujah Blues," an installation by North Kingstown artist Russ Smith that inhabits the Boss Gallery at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, and "Hubris Corpulentis," a mix of satire and art by San Francisco's Art Hazelwood on display at the University of Rhode Island Library Gallery, take dead aim at the Iraq War in exhibits that will undoubtedly provoke thought and stir emotion . . .
The centerpiece of Smith's installation is the rubble in the middle of the room, a chaos of blown-apart bricks and cinderblocks, boots and burnt rags, scattered sand and pieces of metal. Hanging overhead from the light fixtures are black drapes representing charred clothing.
It is a still life of modern war, a fragmented scene of a truck bombing that has become all too familiar an image, found objects that represent the barbed wire, rusted iron, jagged concrete and twisted metal landscapes of the battlefield.
Exploding out from the main installation are sculptures, posters, photographs, writings and other media.
A poster of George Bush's mug is presented as a kind of anti-Uncle Sam. Underneath the president is a two-toned word: DISOBEY, with the first syllable a separate color from the second two. On another wall an American flag hangs upside down. The lyrics to John Fogarty's prescient anti-Vietnam War song, "Fortunate Son," are exhibited. There is also an anecdote about the disconnect between the powerful and the poor, a news item about President Bush called "A Day in the Life of a Millionaire's Son."
The story of "Fallujah Blues" unfolds on two walls in large text. It starts in the manner of a fairy tale: "Once upon a time, in Holland, Michigan, a man named Edgar Prince started up a small automotive parts supply business." The resulting narrative tells a chilling story in journalistic detail about the horrific deaths of four Americans in the city of Fallujah on March 31, 2004. Along the way it chronicles the extent of secret involvement by ultra-conservative influence peddlers, reading like the postscript to President Eisenhower's fateful warning about "the military-industrial complex" and its role in American policy making.
It's a searing piece of writing, raising questions about the privatization of modern warfare and the clandestine nature of military companies like Blackwater USA, which trained the four U.S. citizens who were killed in Fallujah. Even more disturbing are photographs on the opposite wall, covered in shrouds, each an image of a corpse mutilated, burned and blown apart.
Grisly and unsparing, Smith's multi-media installation reverberates with the horrors of war in images and words that won't be found in the daily sound bites, press conferences and talking head shows . . . Smith aims for the gut in a matter-of-fact style.