Anyone heading to the opening reception for A Soldier's Anthology tonight will recognize much that unites the two artists: in their medium (polaroid manipulations), in their themes (reinterpreting the past), and in their subject matter (war). Yet what electrifies the artworks and makes them so much more than what any war photos hung on a wall could hope to be is their difference. In their opposition not their unity, the works speak what is most important about themselves.
Artist Karen Reisdorf grew up understanding that you did not talk about the war. Her father did not tell stories about his time in Vietnam. Her grandmother did not talk about it. Wartime photographs, letters, medals and memorabilia were sequestered in a box in the attic, where all such discussion, too, seemed shuttered in the dark. Its contents were not known, aside from a fleeting childhood glimpse, until last year. That discovery was—and it should not be hard to comprehend—a revelation.
"In a way," says Karen, "it was like bringing back this old wound."
One year after that revelation, several of those photos and the content of those letters have been transformed by the daughter who had longed to not only know her father's story but to share it. (In a video we produced last month, you can see how Karen went about transferring the images onto glass plates to produce the light boxes on display at the exhibit.)
Her father, Anthony J. Reisdorf, was 19 years old when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in October, 1966. He fought in the Tet Offensive as part of the Lightning Bolt 4th Battalion, based out of Tay Ninh. He was shot and wounded on December 13, 1967. He wrote a letter home detailing the path of the bullet, which pierced his back and his gear, including several packets of Kool-Aid. Upon returning to the United States in October 1968, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He never spoke of any of it. He was no hero, he insisted, for walking through enemy fire with a comrade-in-arms slung over his shoulder. Anyone else would have done it, and far more did more, he would say. Such abnegation was never enough to shake a daughter's faith in the heroism of her father.
Karen resituates his history in Vietnam, transposing images—photographs of her father in the Vietnamese jungle, the bullet that pierced his flesh, the letters he wrote home to his family—and in this way telling the stories she was never told by piecing together fragments of forgotten experience. Karen calls the light boxes "spaces of time captured in a moment." As such, they are beyond time. They are mythic, sacred as well as profane. They are an homage. No photographs of the light boxes can reproduce their illumined fragility—each one a testament to how profound and everlasting a fleeting moment can become. So you will not see any photographs of them on the site. You will simply have to go to the show.
Opposite Karen's light boxes, Becky LeFevre has displayed a series of thirteen works of polaroid transfers made of her grandfather's photos taken during World War II. One of these is comprised of a single image. It depicts a pair of hands, grizzled with age, thumbing through a stack of photographs. Hands and photographs both belong to Becky's grandfather, Stephen J. Novak, now 96 years old. He is perusing and likely reminiscing.
That image is enough to signal the profound difference between the stories of the two men—father and grandfather—and the works of the two artists. I'll say it again, it is through their opposition that these disparate works are transformed into a whole that is volatilized through its differences. This is why we can speak of this as one exhibit and not two. Set as they are side by side, literally facing each other across a room, the two halves force a dialogue that says what neither could say on its own.
Becky can relate the circumstance and often even name the individuals that appear in the photographs taken by her grandfather. Each can tell a story in full relief with a concrete past, present and future. We can follow its inhabitants through the vicissitudes of their personal histories. On the other hand, Karen tells us that her father, when shown his photographs from Vietnam, could not or would not begin to relate their details. The particulars are mired in obscurity, a darkness forced upon them through repression. They are not what could be remembered. They are what had to be forgot.
In heartfelt sincerity, Becky's grandfather has told his family that the war was the best time of his life, however much that may have perplexed them. Stephen J. Novak enlisted in the military on May 9, 1942, because... well... because all of his friends were in the war. That's pretty much how he explains it, says Becky. He was 30 years old, and so intent on becoming a soldier at all costs that he persisted despite rejections by several branches of the military, until he was accepted by the Army. He was sent to the south Pacific with the 90th Bombardment Group—the "best damned heavy bomb group in the world," they were later dubbed—as an aerial photographer and gunner. He sent photographs and stories back home to his reporter friends in New Jersey detailing his visits with the natives—he was sure they were cannibals—in New Guinea or relating whatever other adventure he found in Australia or the Philippines.
Becky poured through boxes of thousands of such photographs and chose about a dozen to serve as the raw material for the exhibit. She discovered in the process of making the polaroid transfers a symbolic act that mirrored the transfer of the photographs through the generations.
"I wanted to do something to make it more personal to me, something that I created," she says. "I wanted to create images based on his work. It's my version of his story, not so much the stories themselves."
As for her grandfather's statement that the war was the best time of his life, she understands that as meaning "the most impactful," she says.
"It was the best not because it was the most enjoyable, but because it was the most meaningful."
Meaning is what this show is all about. Whatever else they are, these images are concretions of meaning: several senses sedimented and folded into what Karen calls spaces of time. Through juxtaposition and through the manipulation and deconstruction of the image, meanings are birthed multiple. Each image was once a photograph—of something, of someone. Something was once there that became something else, something different, someone else's space of time. There are so many eyes caught in the glass, where we can never forget that the image, too, is caught. Eyes looking out, eyes looking in and through, eyes looking back, shaping each image—too many eyes for any image not to vibrate with the lives and histories and interpretations read into every gesture and landscape.
Sam Beckett once wrote: "The only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent. The artist is active, but negatively ... drawn in to the core of the eddy."
We can only ever hope to be drawn into the core of the eddy, where everyone else was already drawn before us, where they await us. Thank you, Karen and Becky, for drawing us in.
Artists Becky LeFevre and Karen Reisdorf welcome the public to the opening reception of their exhibit, A Soldier's Anthology: Family Images from WWII and Vietnam, tonight. Folks are encouraged to come by, meet the artists, scope the works and munch hors d'oeuvres from 7:00 to 9:00pm at the GO ART! cultural center at the corner of East Main and Bank streets.