When it comes to art addressing the violence of armed combat, you might not at first think of ceramic cups. But the use of this delicate, handmade medium to address the horrors of war and the bitterness of wartime propaganda is more than an emotionally powerful bit of irony in the Craft and Folk Art Museum's current exhibition, “Ehren Tool: Production or Destruction.”
Tool is a former Marine, and a veteran of the first Gulf War, whose artistic endeavors of the past 20 years has been an attempt to come to terms with the human consequences of military conflict. Tapping into art-historical and folk traditions whereby ceramic vessels are seen as metaphorical avatars of the human body, Tool references the regimentation of combat formations like squads and platoons by creating more than 1000 pieces in total.
From a distance, the rows of cups along the many long, straight shelves appear orderly and, pardon the pun, uniform — much like a military group. But also, as with any group of men and women, when you approach closer you confront an infinity of differences and variations. Each is unique, bearing soldiers' photos, snippets of propaganda, or “war porn,” and bas-reliefs depicting weapons and medals.
On the ground, a grid of broken, black shards stands as a stark memorial to lives lost, looking less like a pottery shop and more like a dark dream of Arlington National Cemetery. Overall, the quiet power of the work does more to prove its point by poetic contrast than many of its more volatile counterparts.
“Ehren Tool: Production or Destruction” remains on view through September 9.