Exhibit Review: ArtOASIS Showcase at MCASD La Jolla

A new exhibit features artwork by soldiers to raise awareness of the psychological effects of battle.

Photo courtesy of MCASD
Photo courtesy of MCASD

Event Date: May 14

Though approximately two million soldiers serve in the United States military, many citizens remain unaware of the fact that for many soldiers, their real battle — the struggle to recover — begins once they come home. A current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, the ArtOasis Showcase features artwork by active-duty combat troops currently stationed domestically to increase awareness of this issue.

Composed of simplistic, childlike artwork, the ArtOasis Showcase is far from the likes of traditional museum art. Here, art becomes a coping mechanism, a way for soldiers to make sense of themselves, to adjust to their ever-changing reality. The 40 featured artists’ names are kept anonymous due to their art’s personal nature. The anonymity of the artists and their unembellished art make them seem more human, more relatable — people with distinct memories and aspirations. While their experiences differ, the trauma, pain and coping mechanisms are universal. Featuring a variety of different media and styles, these works reveal much about the self-image and mental distress of soldiers, allowing viewers insight into the minds of those plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Along one wall lies a series of papier-mache masks entitled “Perceptions of Self,” in which participants reflect on the discrepancy between their self-image and outward appearance. The pieces demonstrate the struggle soldiers face in accepting their situation while reconciling memories and past actions with themselves. Though each mask is unique, their color schemes are remarkably similar, with dark, blood-like colors and textures. A particularly haunting skull-like mask with black tear-like details and cracks features the phrase “born to kill.” As a reflection of internal and external perception, this mask, like the others, provides a sobering look on the psychological toll of endless stress and conflict, leading one to wonder if the ultimate outcome of war is really worth all this suffering.

Directly opposite the masks lies a set of paintings called “Words, Words, Words.” Here, the participants created text-based art in order to bring attention to the issues that soldiers face. The abstract paintings feature simple phrases and words such as “yes” and “life” on colorful paint-splattered backgrounds, creating a more hopeful space in the otherwise-somber exhibit.

One particular standalone image, entitled “Memory Wall,” embodies the overall spirit and motivations behind the showcase. The mural-style canvas painting is the result of a collaborative effort between artists and service members, an array of symbols representing the traumatic experiences of the battlefield. Painted upon a tent-like canvas with crude, harsh brushstrokes, it portrays the image of a tank in a field of fire, operated by a shooting skeleton. In the foreground is a grim scene — tortured faces and blood splatters from injured, dying people. The crude lines and disconcerting imagery in the painting reflect much of the mental turmoil of those struggling with the memories of active duty, yet the painting also provides a means of escape, for soldiers to move on.

While the experiences of each individual contributor to the exhibit may never be known, the ArtOasis showcase at MCASD La Jolla highlights the ubiquity of a soldier’s struggle with war. The frustration, stress and anxiety showcased in the exhibit provides viewers with tangible evidence of the issues American soldiers face, while remaining a testimony to the power of art therapy as an outlet through which recovery is possible.