Reviews & Essays
Regina Granne, Elegy: War Games
The Olson Gallery, Bethel University
Mixing art and politics is always risky. Art can easily become sentimental, bombastic, or downright preachy. But New York artist Regina Granne resists those traps in her War Games drawings. Her small-scale, delicate colored pencil and graphite works address the unpopular war in Iraq by picturing the literal and emotional distance through which we understand the war and its casualties. Granne achieves this detachment by depicting objects — maps, bar graphs, satellite photographs, children’s war drawings, paper airplanes, and toy soldiers — that are already representations of something else. But detachment, the ability to say, “It’s just a game,” does not come without its consequences. And Granne’s consequences loom large in the evocation of absence, loss and complicity, reminding us that on some level we are all the perpetrators and victims of war.

Granne began her Stealth series in 2004, not long after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which occasioned the first use of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber in combat. The artist’s earliest drawings do not look menacing at first glance, with their restrained color and heavily-worked, motley surface. The objects that fill the space seem equally benign. Paper airplanes — two, three, four, or five at a time — appear to hover above a flat map, pointing quietly toward some unlabeled target. The places, as the series title implies, are decidedly hard to detect. In most of these drawings, such as Stealth Series II (2004), the paper airplanes are folded versions of the maps they fly over. They blend into the mapped space below, the same colored vectors extending onto the paper airplanes’ wings and body.

The innocence of the scene begins to evaporate as the viewer realizes how Granne’s maps, which she finds in newspapers and on the Internet, are not particularly useful. Generally people trust maps — they offer directions, act as a guide, and tell us where we are in relation to other things. But even though some of the artist’s maps provide limited information such as the shape of current-day Iraq and the city of Baghdad or major rivers and roadways they offer little more. A map without words, numbers, or a legend is deservedly suspect: there is not enough information to establish a perspective or to promote understanding. Where exactly are the planes heading? Where are the vectors pointing? How do we know who or what is being targeted? What will be the outcome? What happens if the stealth bombers do no hit their intended target? In this manner the information that is withheld becomes as important as that which is provided. It underscores how little we still know about the ongoing war in Iraq, despite the availability of news and events 24/7.

The lack of specificity in Granne’s drawings tends to universalize them, and in works such as Nothing Ever Changes (2004) and Fragments (2005) Granne takes this a step farther as she eschews maps camouflage and adopts different decoration on her paper airplanes. Here her models are folded out of copies of children’s art found on the Internet. These drawings, which feature images of tanks and bombers, were made by children living in war-torn areas — in Uganda, Chechnya, Sudan, Iraq, Kosovo, and Darfur. The six planes in Fragments do not soar, they are not part of some missions, military or humanitarian. Rather, they sit inert and tilting upward around a mix of torn-up maps. In this drawing the bird’s-eye perspective that Granne routinely employs feels especially uncomfortable. Where are you, the viewer, in relation to this destruction? Are you above it all — removed and untouched by the wars taking place below?

The interplay between innocence and violence becomes more acute in Granne’s drawings that introduce another element of child’s play — toy soldiers. These white, ghost-like figures variously stand, crouch, and lay upon the maps, guns outstretched and casting ominous shadows upon the maps. The featureless, anonymous soldiers in these drawings also seem to exist out of time. In the drawing Death by Days (2007), dot graphs indicate fallen soldiers in different parts of the blue shape we read as Iraq and the surrounding orange area, but not in any lucid manner. Although we seem to be observing a war game in process, we still have no sense of the reality, the meaning of each individual dot. Is each dot representing just one death or hundreds of thousands?

Helplessness resonates in Granne’s most recent pieces. These elegiac drawings, the faceless toy soldiers lie rigid, in contorted positions upon their backs, with single flowers placed upon them. Devoid of all color, just graphite on white paper, these drawings speak to the catastrophic loss war brings. There is no beauty in works like Flower for Fallen Soldier (2008) — even the flowers appear to have been ripped from the ground, their roots still attached and their petals scattered.

Granne’s drawings ask us to question what we might take as objective truth — like a simple map — and what we might have learned as a child in play — that war is game where the toy soldiers never really die. What we must realize is that seemingly innocuous things, the maps we look at or the toys we play with, are not unlike that war. They too are about dominance, power, and knowledge.

Kerry A Morgan, PhD

Art Historian

Augsburg College